Narong Sangnak / EPA
Thai-born U.S. citizen Joe Gordon, 55, is escorted by Thai prison officials as he arrives at a Bangkok court on Thursday. He was jailed for two-and-a-half years for insulting the country's monarchy.
BANGKOK - A Colorado car salesman who was jailed Thursday for insulting Thailand's monarchy has become a pawn in an escalating political battle over freedom of speech in the southeast Asia country.
The case of Joe Gordon, a 54-year-old U.S. citizen who was born Lerpong Wichaikhammat in Thailand before emigrating to the United States decades ago, has been troubling for Washington. The U.S. sees Thailand as a crucial ally in the region but has been increasingly concerned by restrictions on free expression in the kingdom.
Gordon was arrested in May during a trip to Thailand for medical treatment. His crime was posting a partial translation of a critical academic biography of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej on the internet while living in Colorado.
U.S. Consul General in Thailand Elizabeth Pratt said Gordon's two-and-a-half year sentence was severe and he been jailed for exercising his right to freedom of expression.
"We continue to have full respect to the Thai monarchy and we also want to support the right to freedom of expression which is internationally recognized as a human right," she told reporters at the court.
Thailand is one of the few countries in the world where a hereditary monarch still has immense powers. Although the country is supposed to be a constitutional monarchy where the king has only symbolic powers, in fact the palace has massive political influence, and a law banning any criticism of the monarch is still in force.
Many Thais feel great respect for the king, but there is increasing concern over whether restrictions on freedom of speech are damaging the monarchy rather than protecting it.
As a Thai, I admire the king, but as a journalist I am concerned that I cannot discuss the growing national debate about the monarchy. Even in private, many Thais are worried that discussing it could get them jailed.
Most Thais I spoke to about the sentence were afraid to express their views openly.
"He's not the book author, he only translated and posted on his blog. It's a bit unfair for him," said school officer Suthasinee who declined to give her last name.
The book Gordon translated is The King Never Smiles, written by U.S. journalist Paul Handley and published by Yale University Press. It is one of the few publications that attempts a critical but academic look at the Thai monarchy.
"The media can report anything but not the royal family topic, we are all know that," said Kan Yuenyong, an analyst at Siam Intelligence Unit. "If there are ... more of lese majeste cases, it might make people stand up to resist against the royal institution," Kan added.
Under Thailand's so-called lese majeste laws, those found guilty of defaming the monarchy face three to 15 years behind bars.
Ever since a 2006 coup that ousted popular Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the use of lese majeste legislation has surged.
Recently, the authorities have focused on social media, especially Facebook, as it has become the main discussion forum for Thais who oppose the lese majeste law.
The ministry of Information and Communication Technology has set up a hotline for those who want to report "cyber crimes" against the monarchy. The ICT suspended more than 60,000 websites between October and November and urged people to not click "share" or "like" on Facebook posts that criticize the monarchy.
Ironically, it is not even clear whether King Bhumibol supports the crackdown. In his birthday speech in 2005, he said that he should not be above criticism: "Charges against those accused of lese-majeste should be dropped and those held in jail for lese-majeste should be released."
However, it seems that some of his supporters were not listening. And many Thais fear that instead of protecting the palace, the new atmosphere of fear and repression may have the opposite effect.