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Thai minister vows to get tough on royal critics

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s new justice minister vowed on Friday to toughen controversial laws protecting the monarchy and crack down on unprecedented levels of criticism of the palace stemming from recent political turmoil.

Thailand's Minister of Justice Pirapan Salirathavibhaga gestures during an interview at the Ministry of Justice in Bangkok January 9, 2009. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, a former judge, said protecting the nation’s “most revered institution” was his top priority, adding that he would enlist the help of the army to suppress alleged anti-royal activities.

“In Thailand, the monarchy is not only a symbolic institution. It is the pillar of national security,” he said in an interview.

“Whatever is deemed as affecting the monarchy must be treated as a threat to national security,” said Pirapan, who has a U.S. masters degree in law.

Rights activists have accused the new government led by the Democrat party of stifling freedom of speech and silencing its political opponents under the guise of a crackdown on Internet pages criticising the monarchy.

The administration has already announced plans to add 400 Web pages to 2,300 already blocked for lese-majeste, or insulting the monarchy, a crime that carries up to 15 years in prison in Thailand, where many regard the king as semi-divine.

Freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution but Pirapan said that did not mean criticism of the monarchy amounting to a threat to national security would be tolerated.

“When you visit the United States, your rights have been infringed when you have to take your shoes or your belt off for an airport security check. That is done for the sake of national security,” Pirapan said.

“In Thailand, your freedom of speech might have to be compromised for the sake of national security,” he said.


Website operators said online criticism of the role of the monarch in public life -- a taboo subject despite King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s occasional forays into politics -- had risen since Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a 2006 coup.

Site editors said they had often had to pull comments, most notably after Queen Sirikit attended the funeral of an anti-Thaksin protester killed in clashes with police in October, a move that fuelled suspicions of royal backing for the street movement.

Even though the king has said himself that he should not be above criticism, and most other countries with lese-majeste laws are relaxing them, Pirapan said Thailand needed to toughen its defences because of a strengthening anti-monarchy movement.

As an opposition MP last year he drafted two bills to that effect, and as minister will push for parliamentary approval.

One raises the maximum jail term for lese-majeste to 25 years, while the other will remove the need for a police investigation and allow lese-majeste complaints to be filed by members of the public directly with the courts.

Critics say the law is open to abuse since a complaint can be filed by anybody against anybody, no matter how minor the alleged disrespect to the royal family.

They have also wondered why a country that proclaims such devotion to its king needs such strong laws to protect his image.

“Thailand’s monarchy is the best institution in the world and we must not let anyone criticise it,” Pirapan said.