World News

Arrest of Thai academic raises free speech fears

BANGKOK (Reuters) - The arrest of a renowned academic on charges of insulting Thailand’s king in a lecture a year ago is a blow to freedom of speech and makes debate of the country’s political problems more difficult, analysts said on Friday.

Sulak Sivaraksa, 75, was taken from his Bangkok home late on Thursday and driven 450 km (280 miles) to a police station in northeast Khon Kaen province to be charged with lese majeste for a university speech he gave there in December, his lawyer said.

His comments were broadly critical of government spending on the lavish 2006 celebrations for King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Golden Jubilee. After an hour of questioning, he was freed on bail and allowed to return to Bangkok, his lawyer told Reuters.

The Welsh-educated scholar of Buddhism is no stranger to the lese majeste law, which could land him in jail for 15 years, although on the two previous occasions he has been charged, in the 1980s and 1990s, he was acquitted.

However, it is the timing of his arrest, amid a struggle between the royalist, military “old guard”, represented loosely by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) street campaign, and forces loyal to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, that has caused most concern.

Thailand’s revered royals are officially above politics, even though the 80-year-old king, by his own admission in a 1989 interview with the New York Times, “must be in the middle and working in every field”.

But claims to royal neutrality have been questioned since Queen Sirikit attended the funeral last month of a PAD protester killed in clashes with police, giving explicit royal backing to the campaign to oust the elected government.

“The more clear it becomes that the monarchy is caught up in politics, the more they are attempting to clamp down on local and international discussion of this role,” said Thailand researcher Andrew Walker of Australian National University in Canberra.

“It seems that the authorities are trying to keep a lid on discussion of this political role,” he said.

The PAD, a group of royalist businessmen, academics and activists, accuses Thaksin and his allies in the current administration of wanting to turn the kingdom into a republic -- a charge they deny.

Under pressure from the protest movement, army chief Anupong Paochina has urged the police and government to leave no stone unturned in rooting out critics of the royal family, triggering little short of a lese majeste witch-hunt.

Police have set up a task force to monitor web sites that might defame royalty, and the Telecommunications Ministry has told Internet service providers to block offending web pages or face criminal action.

David Streckfuss, a lecturer from the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied the law, said he expected the number of lese majeste cases to rise as both the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps try to appear more royalist than their rivals.

The long-term impact on the palace is only likely to be negative, Streckfuss said, as it would make the monarchy “more of a focal point” and “put it under greater scrutiny by the people.”

“Maybe the genie is out of the bottle, and it is impossible to put the genie back,” he said.

Additional reporting by Ed Cropley