Lèse-Majesté laws for the most part are a thing of the past in this day and age. These laws hav been used in the past to make sure nothing but favorable comments and respect is given to the Monarchy. Even in the 21st century these laws are seen as archaic by the last remaining Monarchies themselves. Thailand’s King Bhumibol himself has said he doesn’t need it and has never leveled the charge. Thailand’s Lèse-Majesté laws have taken on a new life in the 21st century as a tool in the arsenal of Thailand’s political elite.
Thailand’s Lèse-Majesté law carries a 15 year maximum sentence for anyone disrespecting or insulting the royal family. What normally happens in these cases is that the person is brought to trial, evidence is given and if sufficient they are found guilty of the crime. What happens next is the King in an act of benevolence pardons the wrong doer and they are released from prison and deported from the country.
In 2006 a Oliver Jufer in a drunken rage defaced images of the king in Chang Mai province. He was arrested and held without bail for several months until the trial began. He was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in a Thai prison. After four months the king pardoned him and he was deported to his home country.
This has been the norm in Thailand for a very long time until now. With the past two years of political infighting and turmoil the politicians themselves are now using the Lèse-Majesté laws in their arsenal of tricks to curb dissension and gag their political rivals. In doing so they are prosecuting any case no matter how small. Recently over 2000 websites have been marked as insulting or offending the Thai Monarchy. Even talking about Thai politics can be construed as insulting the Monarchy. Youtube was blocked in Thailand for some time due to what Thai officials deemed offensive material to the King. Although Youtube is no longer blocked in Thailand it is heavily filtered.
Recently Harry Nicolaides, a university lecturer in Thailand, was arrested at the Bangkok airport back in August of 2008 and has been left languishing in a Thai prison without bail since. Back in 2005 Nicolaides wrote a fictional account of an unnamed Thai Prince in one of his books that had a printing of less than 50 copies.
No one is safe from this law and it’s interpretation by the Thai political machine. The BBC is under investigation for supposedly having an article on their website where a picture of a politician was placed higher in the article than a picture of the king. The BBC has denied this report and are cooperating with the investigation.
With all the recent political turmoil all the different factions have been leveling charges of Lèse-Majesté knowing full well even if it isn’t a true charge the implications will destroy a political opponent.
What does all this mean to the tourist visiting Thailand? Simply put the Thais love their King and he is the most revered Monarch most likely in the history of Monarchs. You should keep in mind social etiquette wherever you may be in Thailand. I would much rather be arrested under the Lèse-Majesté law than suffer the wrath of angry Thais for disrespecting the Monarchy they love so dearly.
All money in Thailand bears the kings likeness which means you should treat Thai money with the utmost respect. If you should drop a coin or bill on the ground do not step on it to keep it from getting away as that would be seen as stepping on the king himself.
Whenever you hear the Thai national anthem played stop what you are doing and pay respect. In movie theatres before the main feature is played a short film of the king is played along with the Thai national anthem. It’s proper etiquette to stand and remain standing until the the short film is over. There have been more than a few documented cases of violence in movie theaters when someone has remained seated during the national anthem.
Whenever speaking of the king or the monarchy do so with respect and don’t make jokes or say anything that may be misunderstood by the locals.
For the most part as a tourist if you keep these things in mind your trip will be uneventful. Just remember to keep these things in mind!