Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Giles Ungpakorn flees to England to avoid Thai lèse majesté charges

Thai corrections department officials told Australian Associated Press yesterday that they have recommended Harry Nicolaides receive a royal pardon. The department’s Pardons Division is now finalising the evidence before making a petition to the minister and eventually sending it to King Bhumibol Adulyadel for his official signature. Nicolaides was sentenced a month ago for insulting the monarchy in his 2005 novel Verisimilitude. But while Nicolaides is likely to be freed in a matter of months, a local man charged of the same crime fled to Britain last week to avoid prosecution.

Giles (Ji) Ungpakorn was charged last month under the lèse-majesté law over a book about the country's military coup in 2006. Ungpakorn was facing up to 15 years in jail if convicted under the laws. He said he was targeted for political reasons because his 2007 book, A Coup for the Rich (full text in pdf format here), criticised the military for ousting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The book said the coup's leaders claimed 'royal legitimacy' in order to hide the authoritarian intentions of the military junta. Last week he fled to Oxford where he sent an email to Associated Press saying there was no justice in Thailand. He also warned that "the regime seems to be inching towards a police state.”

A police spokesman denied the charge. Lieutenant General Wacharapon Prasatrachakit said there is no reason to believe Ungpakorn will not receive a fair trial. "We have to look into the complaint, like every other complaint, and give everyone their chance to defend themselves,” he said. “This case is no different.” However he refused to elaborate further on the circumstances of this case.

The 54 year old Ungpakorn is a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s oldest university. Ungkaporn is well known for his dissident socialism within Thailand and has made plenty of enemies with his anti-coup views. He claimed that the director of a university bookshop stocking his book had informed the special branch that it "insulted the monarchy". He received a police summons on 20 January on charges arising out of passages in the first chapter of his book deemed insulting to King Bhumibol.

He was given 20 days to respond before it was decided whether to prosecute him. He was due to report back to police on Monday 9 February but Ungpakorn and his wife left the country before the 20 days were up. “I was very worried that I would be detained at the airport,” he said. “My wife thought someone might try and kill me because she received death threats on the phone.”

The pair successfully fled to Oxford where they are now living with family friends. Ungkaporn holds British citizenship thanks to an English mother and a son. He studied at Sussex and Durham universities and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He also worked as a lab technician for Oxford University for 12 years in the 1980s and 1990s and his son still attends school in Oxford. Upon arrival back in Britain last weekend, he told reporters that the real cause of the charge was about preventing discussion on the relationship between the military junta and the monarchy. "This is in order to protect the military's sole claim to legitimacy: that it acted in the interests of the monarchy,” he said. "There is a climate of fear."

While Ungkaporn’s speech may have been somewhat hyperbolic, there is little doubt Thailand is brutally cracking down on free speech. The government has been using the draconian measures in the 2007 Computer Crime Act to censor the Internet for ill-defined reasons of national security including lèse majesté. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) noted Thailand's Ministry of Information Communication and Technology closed down over two thousand Web sites last month for posting materials deemed offensive to the monarchy. The Justice Ministry has said it plans to seek court orders to shut down an additional four thousand Web sites for the same reason.

Last month the CPJ wrote a letter to new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva outlining its concern at Thai media oppression. As well as Nicolaides and Ungkaporn, several others have been charged with offences under the lèse majesté laws. The letter expressed alarm at “the increasing use of lèse majesté charges, which restrict public criticism of the royal family, to intimidate journalists and censor the Internet.”

However the response has not been promising. Last week, Vejjajiva gave an exclusive interview to the Singapore Straits Times where he defended the laws. “A lot of countries have contempt of court laws, because the courts have to be neutral and respected,” he said. “The monarchy is a revered institution above politics and conflicts and therefore has no self-defence mechanism, that's why we have the law.”

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