Democracy calls for 'high tolerance for criticism' of public figures
Open and public debate about all topics, including the monarchy institution, is key to a transparent and democratic society, said former Dutch Ambassador to Thailand Tjaco Van Den Hout.
Van Den Hout, who was speaking on the final day of the two-day seminar on reconciliation and freedom of expression organised by the European Union (EU) delegation in Thailand, said diversity, tolerance and broadmindedness are fundamental aspects of human rights in Europe. He stressed that high tolerance for criticism of public figures, including that of politicians and head of state and monarchy, is necessary for a democratic society. David Streckfuss, Khon Kaen-based American scholar and an authority on lese majeste law, said the minimum mandatory punishment under Thai lese majeste law, which is three years imprisonment term, is as high as the maximum sentences stipulated in Jordan, Morocco and Belgium.
Streckfuss added that during the Thai absolute monarchy, the maximum penalty under the law was only three years imprisonment with no minimum mandatory penalty, while it's now 15 years. Thailand, he said, is unique in the world when it comes to the severity of the law and the frequency of its use. The average lese majeste sentences handed down in Thailand is eight years while the conviction rate is 75 per cent, he pointed out.
Peter Mork Thomsen, a judge from Denmark who handled lese majeste cases and who was a speaker in the programme, said Danish lese majeste law had no mandatory minimum punishment like in Thailand which is three years minimum sentences. The difference with Thailand's lese majeste law is mostly seen in its application, he added.
Social critic Sulak Sivaraksa who has been charged and acquitted of committing lese majetse three times warned that the lese majeste law has develop a life of its own and is "threatening the very security of the institution it professedly protects."
Former senator Jon Ungpakorn, who is on a sub-committee of the National Human Rights Commission sub-committee on political rights, said that more international media coverage on Thai lese majeste law is a positive development. "Thai people have to respect people with different opinion," he said. Tongthong Chandransu, permanent secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office, said the law has been abused and added that it is "not beneficial to the monarchy institution in the long term".