Government Relations

Thailand: U.S. Needs to End Muted Approach to Thai Officials’ Abusive Application of Draconian Law

June 10, 2024 |Thailand, USA

BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2024/05/14: Pro-democracy activists make three finger salute and hold portraits of Netiporn Sanesangkhom during mourning ceremony outside The Southern Bangkok Criminal Court. Thai political activist Netiporn Sanesangkhom also know as
(Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

By Carolyn Nash, AIUSA Asia Advocacy Director, Government Relations

On May 28, twenty-eight-year-old Thai democracy activist Netiporn ‘Bung’ Sanesangkhom died following a 65-day hunger strike. United States Ambassador to Thailand Robert Godec tweeted condolences to her family and friends, but made no mention of the context in which her death occurred: Bung had been arbitrarily detained under charges of lèse-majesté, a draconian law prohibiting insulting the monarchy. In recent years, lèse-majesté charges have been levied against Thais for, among other acts, mocking the Queen’s outfits, sharing a BBC profile of the King on Facebook, and receiving a Facebook message critical of the King. One of the seven criminal charges against Bung was that she asked people what they thought about royal motorcades that cause traffic delays.

Thai and international human rights groups have made repeated calls for the Thai government to reform or repeal the law. In a report published in January 2024, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights found that from July 2020 to November 2023, Thai officials charged or prosecuted at least 286 children in connection with the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Yet U.S. officials have remained largely mute on Thailand’s continued use of lèse-majesté to silence dissent – a decision that reflects both a human rights failure and political miscalculation by the United States. 

Continuation of U.S. silence is likely to contribute to an escalating assault on political and civic freedom in Thailand. Bung’s death, while perhaps the gravest consequence yet of the current assault on political freedoms, will not be the last.  In June alone, a former Prime Minister may be sent to prison on lèse-majesté charges and Senators may force the dissolution of the most popular political party in the country based on its campaign against this abusive law. 

On May 29, authorities indicted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — a towering figure in current politics who returned from a 15-year exile only last year – for lèse-majesté charges related to a media interview he gave in 2015. In parallel, the Constitutional Court agreed to hear a case that could lead to impeachment of current Prime Minister Sretta Thavisin. The opposition Move Forward Party faces a trial under the same Constitutional Court that could result in possible dissolution because of the party’s campaign to amend the lèse-majesté law. The first hearing in the case will take place on June 12th

Direct public messaging now by the U.S. about Thailand’s deteriorating rights environment as a threat to the partnership would amount to a sea change in diplomatic tone. A forceful message by the U.S. could help to scale back the aggressive attacks on free expression and would add to pressure exerted by other governments, such as Germany’s, that have already raised concerns.  

Continued silence on issues such as lèse-majesté, which is used explicitly to crush human rights and political opposition, risks registering with Thai free speech activists as U.S. alignment with a government that represses the right to freedom of expression. The U.S. has the opportunity to make a diplomatic shift more consistent with a human rights-centered foreign policy, following the lead of governments that have advanced more contextualized, specific concern for political activists. Without this shift, human rights advocates and future leaders of Thailand will be unlikely to see the U.S. as a credible ally.