A Thai socialist, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, is facing up to 15 years in jail after being charged by police with lese majeste – insulting the king. Ungpakorn is an associate professor in the political science faculty of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and a member of Workers’ Democracy, the Thai affiliate of the International Socialist Tendency (led by the British Socialist Workers Party).
In September 2006, when a military coup overthrew the elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, Ungpakorn joined students in a protest demonstration in Bangkok. The protesters were not supporters of Thaksin, but demanded a return to democracy. The September 23, 2006 British Independent quoted Ungpakorn, when he was threatened with arrest for participating in a peaful public protest against the coup, as saying: “I have never supported the Thaksin government. We were protesting against Thaksin’s human rights abuses long before the anti-corruption protests began ... It’s a tale of two countries. You have the urban middle classes and the rural poor. Thaksin was the first to really provide political programmes for the poor ... I think the rural poor voted for him because he provided policies for them. That’s democracy and if you don’t like it you have to set up a political party and offer something better. In this country it’s the rural poor who respect democracy – and it’s the educated elite who don’t.”
In February 2007, Ungpakorn published an English-language academic analysis of the coup, titled A Coup for the Rich: Thailand’s Political Crisis. The Chulalongkorn University bookshop refused to distribute it, initially on the grounds that it quoted from The King Never Smiles, a critical biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej by journalist Paul M. Handley.
Subsequently, the bookshop manager complained to the police about eight paragraphs in A Coup for the Rich that allegedly “insulted the monarchy”. These paragraphs mainly concerned the close connections between the king and the military coup makers. On January 20 this year, the police informed Ungpakorn that he has been charged with lese majeste, giving him 20 days to respond to the charges, after which the authorities will decide whether to send the case for trial.
Thailand’s lese majeste laws have often been used to clamp down on reporting or discussion of political issues, and that is the clear intention in this case. A petition calling for the repeal of the laws is being circulated. Both Thais and foreigners are urged to support it. It can be signed online at www.petitiononline.com/ThaiLese/petition.