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Thailand cracks down on royal insults

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Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej after he marked the 60th anniversary of his coronation at the Grand Palace on May 5, 2010 in Bangkok, Thailand.

By Ian Williams, NBC News Correspondent

BANGKOK, Thailand – An American citizen is now well into his third week in prison here, accused of insulting the Thai monarchy and violating state security, which together could earn him a 22-year sentence.

His crime? Allegedly posting a link on his blog to “The King Never Smiles,” an unauthorized biography of Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The book, by American journalist Paul Handley, is banned in Thailand because it is considered to be an unfairly harsh assessment of the king. Translating parts of it into the Thai language is outlawed. 

The 54-year-old American, Lerpong Wichaicommart, who also goes by the name Joe Gordon, was born in Thailand but lived in the U.S. for 30 years before returning a year or so ago for medical treatment. 

He has been denied bail. His arrest is just the latest of a frenzy of charges under Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté (“injured majesty”) law, which bans anybody from defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen or crown prince. Gordon has been charged with "with lèse majesté, inciting unrest and disobedience of the law in public, and disseminating computer data which threatens national security."

Until recently the law was rarely enforced, perhaps only a handful of cases a year. Now it has reached 100 cases annually, the latest targets including Thai academics, journalists, bloggers and opposition politicians. There’s been a 1,500 percent increase in cases since 2005, according to The Associated Press.

The Thai Justice Ministry has recruited “cyber scouts” to search the Internet looking for offenders.

Declining days of powerful monarchy?
Thailand’s 83-year-old king has been hospitalized since September 2009, and the more aggressive use of the law is undoubtedly linked to his declining health and concern over a smooth succession.

The New York Times recently likened the mood in Thailand these days with the final days of the reign of Emperor Hirohito of Japan, who died in 1989. The newspaper quoted Norma Field, author of “In the Realm of the Dying Emperor,” who described a “chrysanthemum taboo” in Japan that effectively eliminated any non-celebratory discussion of the imperial family.

The likeness is true – but only up to a point.

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Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, left, and Princess Srirasm attend a religious ceremony at the Grand Palace to mark Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej's Coronation day on May 5, 2011.

Thailand is increasingly divided politically and socially, and since a 2006 coup has seen periodic bouts of violence, most recently the army crackdown a year ago on “Red Shirt” anti-government protesters that left 92 people dead.

And while the king is revered as a virtual god, and widely seen as a unifying force, the same cannot be said of his wayward son and heir-apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. U.S. embassy cables, recently published by Wikileaks, quoted senior palace advisers as questioning his fitness for the thrown.

Meet the royal poodle: Foo Foo
A former U.S. ambassador, Ralph Boyce, described in one cable a dinner with the crown prince and his poodle Foo Foo, which holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal in the Thai military.

"Foo Foo was present at the event and dressed in formal evening attire complete with paw mitts," Boyce wrote." At one point during the band's second number, he jumped up onto the head table and began lapping from the guests' water glasses, including my own."

The king’s daughter, Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, is much more popular than her brother, but low key. If she were to become queen – which is unlikely – the Thai monarchy would probably take on a more modern, accessible, less-aloof attitude.

Neither can hope to fill the substantial shoes of their father, the world’s longest-serving monarch, and the monarchy in Thailand will be a much diminished institution. That in turn will impact those who have depended on Thailand’s old hierarchical system of power and patronage.

Struggle between old and new
This is the background against which the recent and often violent power struggles in Thailand are being played out. The old and increasingly insecure royalist elite is pitted against a new elite, which has cleverly aligned themselves with Thailand’s poor, tapping into the legitimate grievances of those who feel they have missed out on the country’s growing wealth.

That’s why it is different from Japan, and also why there is a desperate need for open and candid discussion, which the government is increasingly desperate to stifle.

Ironically, one of the biggest critics of the lèse majesté law has been the king himself. In a 1995 speech he said: “If we hold that the king cannot be criticized or violated, then the king ends up in a difficult situation.”

As one brave Thai columnist recently pointed out, the aggressive use of lèse majesté by the army and government for political reasons is itself insulting to the king, and threatens to damage the image of the very institution it claims to be protecting.