US citizen pleads guilty to insulting Thai monarchy

A United States citizen pleaded guilty on Monday to insulting Thailand’s monarchy, an offence that carries up to 15 years in prison, but he called on Washington to help release him to support freedom of expression.

Thailand has the world’s toughest laws on lese-majeste, or insulting the monarchy, and many of its people regard King Bhumibol Adulyadej as almost divine.

Thai-born Lerpong Wichaikhammat (55) was charged with using the Internet to disseminate information that insults or threatens the monarchy after he translated an article and posted it on his blog.

He was also accused of providing a web link to a controversial biography by an American author of 83-year-old King Bhumibol, a book banned in Thailand.

“I plead guilty because no one can win the case,” he told media in the court. The judges give their verdict on November 9.

“I have no chance,” said Lerpong, who also goes by the name Joe W Gordon. “I want the American government to help release me. This is a case of freedom of expression.”

Lerpong, who has dual Thai and American citizenship, was also charged with contravening the country’s Computer Crimes Act. When he was arrested in May, he had denied all charges.

The US embassy in Bangkok expressed support for him and said it would continue to provide consular assistance.

“We will also continue to raise his case with Thai authorities, stressing at every possible opportunity his rights as an American citizen. We urge Thai authorities to ensure the freedom of expression is respected,” Walter Braunohler, an embassy spokesperson, said in a statement.

“The United States maintains our highest respect for the Thai monarchy and also the Thai judicial system,” he added.

‘Criticism taboo’
The number of lese-majeste cases, especially those lodged by the military, has jumped in recent years. Critics say the law is being abused to discredit activists and politicians.

It has been a regular feature of the charged political atmosphere in Thailand in the past five years. The generals who overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 cited his alleged disrespect for the monarchy among other reasons.

David Streckfuss, a Thai-based scholar who monitors lese-majeste cases, has said 397 known cases were submitted to the Criminal Court between 2006 and 2009. In the 15 years before that, there were just four or five cases a year.

Criticism of the law is taboo, as is public disclosure of the nature of the alleged offences. Local media rarely report arrests or convictions related to royal insults.

The king, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, is a respected unifying figure and moral arbiter in Thailand. He has been hospitalised since September 2009, making only rare appearances.

The army goes to great lengths to protect him.

In April army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered subordinates to lodge lese-majeste complaints against three leaders of the pro-Thaksin “red shirt” movement and told army-owned Channel 5 television to devote more air time to royal programmes.

A government led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has since taken power after an election in July. — AFP

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