Protesting the lèse-majesté law at Ampon's funeral. Photo published on this blog.
It was an unlikely place for a funeral: religious rites for Ampon Tangnoppakul, also known as “Uncle SMS”, were held Wednesday night outside Bangkok’s Criminal Court. Hundreds gathered to mourn the man who was jailed for sending government authorities text messages judged as offensive to Thailand’s royalty.
Ampon, 62, died of liver cancer in jail. He was convicted last November under Thailand's “lèse majesté” law, which prohibits anyone from insulting the royal family. He allegedly sent four text messages to a government official in which he insulted the queen. He denied having done this, claiming he did not even know how to send text messages. Under the law, the content of the messages could not be reported. Despite outrage on the part of Amnesty International and other rights groups, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
His wife decided to perform religious rites outside of the court, she said, to remind Thais about the importance of amending Article 112, the lèse majesté law. She also stressed the importance of “allowing all of those who are sick to receive medical treatment”. (Prison officials claim Ampon was given treatment for his cancer.)
The royal family is a very sensitive subject in Thailand, which is a constitutional monarchy. The current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has reigned since 1950. He is widely beloved, and many see him as a calming figure that has gotten the country through chaotic political times. He has been protected from insult his whole life, since the lèse majesté laws have been in effect since 1908.
The number of lèse majesté cases has sharply risen in recent years. From 33 cases in 2005, it went up to 478 in 2010. Critics say it is being used to stifle the opposition. In one ongoing case, the webmaster of a liberal news website has been accused of lèse majesté for failing to remove offensive comments posted by readers quickly enough. Ampon, however, was not politically active.
Nevertheless, many of the supporters of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, who opposed the 2006 military coup and who are also known as the “Red Shirts”, showed up at his vigil.
'Those accused of lèse majesté risk being jailed for just as long as if they had murdered someone'
Ruud is a flight attendant who lives in Bangkok.
I don’t consider myself an activist, but I support the Red Shirts, and they are very upset over Ampon’s death. They weren’t the only ones at the vigil, though. There were also ordinary people, from all social classes, who wanted to express their respect for the deceased as well as their dismay over the injustice he suffered.It was a very sad event, but it promoted a lot of discussion about the flawed lese majesty law. It was an impressive turnout given that most people in Thailand had no idea what was going on. Most of my friends and colleagues don’t even know who Ampon was. The mainstream media didn’t report on his death at all. Holding the funeral at the Criminal Court caused a huge traffic jam, because people spilled out onto the street, but the media didn’t even mention that.Mourners and activists gathered in front of a piece of artwork representing Ampon, in front of Bangkok's Criminal Court Wednesday. Photo by our Observer, Ruud.“I would like to see the ‘lese majesty’ law amended, so that people like Ampon don’t end up in jail”As it stands, anyone in Thailand can accuse anyone else of lèse majesté, and the burden of proof is simply not high enough. In Ampon’s case, the judge admitted in his verdict that there was no definitive proof that Ampon sent the text message himself, but was still convinced it was him. That’s crazy.And then there’s the question of the sentence. People accused of lèse majesté risk being jailed for just as long as if they had murdered someone. It’s completely disproportionate.A woman praying for Ampon at his funeral. Photo by our Observer, Ruud.I think most people in Thailand do want to keep the law, but if you ask most people exactly what the law entails, they can’t tell you. While I wouldn’t mind seeing the lèse majesté law disappear, I would be happy just to see it amended, so that people like Ampon don’t end up in jail.