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Lèse-majesté law explained: Why ‘insulting’ Thai king can land you in jail

Although the foreign press has often reported about the Thai monarchy, any discussion about the royals within Thailand itself, if perceived as “insulting”, can lead to strict punishment under the nation’s lèse-majesté law.

Written by Om Marathe , Edited by Explained Desk |
October 26, 2019 9:11:16 pm
Lèse-majesté law explained: Why ‘insulting’ Thai king can land you in jail Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn at the royal ploughing ceremony in Bangkok, Thailand. (Source: AP/File)

On Monday, Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn stripped his royal consort Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi of all titles for “disloyalty against the monarch”.

Vajiralongkorn, who was coronated in May this year, had in 1996 denounced his second wife and their four sons, and in 2014 stripped his third wife of all titles. According to the BBC, the current Thai ruler does not enjoy the popularity of his father and predecessor, the late Bhumibol Adulyadej, who ruled the Southeast Asian kingdom for over seven decades.

Although the foreign press has often reported about the Thai monarchy, any discussion about the royals within Thailand itself, if perceived as “insulting”, can lead to strict punishment under the nation’s lèse-majesté law.

What is Thailand’s lèse-majesté law, the use of which experts have called ‘anachronistic’?

Most modern monarchies, such as Norway, Japan, and the UK, have either done away with archaic laws meting out punishments for “insulting” heads of state, or have such provisions significantly watered down, and rarely enforce them.

Lèse-majesté, a French term defined variously as “a crime against the sovereign”, “offense against a ruler’s dignity as head of the state”, and “treason” has largely been relegated to the annals of history– but for glaring examples such as Thailand, where its use is blamed for stifling dissent and for sending people behind bars for long years.

Any public scrutiny of the monarchy in Thailand risks being labelled seditious under the country’s lèse-majesté law, one of the world’s strictest. Under Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code titled ‘Insulting or Defaming Royal Family’, anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years”.

The punishment is attracted for every single charge under the law, meaning extraordinarily long sentences can be served upon errants found guilty on multiple charges.

According to the BBC, the law has been increasingly used after the 2014 Thai coup, in which the military seized power from the civilian government. The monarchy is widely revered in Thailand, and Bangkok’s military establishment insists that the law is used to safeguard the royals.

Critics have denounced the provision, and have alleged that a twisted interpretation of the term “insult” is made in order to suppress dissent. Under this law, social media use is also monitored, and posting content considered seditious, as well as pressing the “Like” button on Facebook on such content, has led to prison time.

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