Harsh sentence for American in Thailand sends a signal

Bangkok Sukhumvit traffic

Thailand is one of the world’s most popular expat countries, partly for its sunny climate and partly because the cost of living is quite low, but not everyone realizes that it’s a very complex country where visitors can get into deep trouble. The Land of Smiles, as it’s known, is widely considered among the more liberal countries in Asia, in part because prostitution is openly tolerated, but some visitors still find trouble in surprising places.

The most severe and interesting example has to do with what are known as ‘lese-majeste laws,’ which severely punish anyone for saying or writing anything derogatory about the royal family. This is front-page news again recently when a Thai-born American citizen was apprehended on a recent visit to Thailand for medical treatment, charged with a crime of linking on the web to the text of a banned biography of the king.

The disturbing part of the story for most people is that he’s an American citizen who committed this “crime” while in America, and it was years later when on a visit to Thailand when he was apprehended. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison, knocked down to 2.5 years because he pleaded guilty to the crime.

Some might try to point out that the US does this sort of thing all the time, but in reality there is no parallel between any of those examples and someone imprisoned for posting a link critical of an American from abroad.

Most in Thailand are careful

Fortunately, most expats in Thailand get brought up to date on these laws pretty quickly. I remember reading expat forums while living in Bangkok and Chiang Mai last year where the moderators would almost instantly delete a message and then chide the writer for putting the whole forum at risk by “joking” about the royal family.

However, if you somehow don’t get the word you could be in real trouble. The courts there have recently ruled that clicking the Facebook Like or Share button on a comment or article critical of the royal family is enough to be in violation yourself.

This makes the infamous 1994 caning in Singapore of the American boy caught vandalizing cars seem like a walk in the park.

Do your research

While the Thailand laws do seem to be the most famous in the world, partly because they seem otherwise out of character for such a popular country, they certainly aren’t the only ones. In Saudi Arabia and many other Middle Eastern countries there are severe punishments for things that are legal and common almost everywhere else.

In a chilling development, a senior minister in India recently proposed that the web be monitored for any chatter that puts government officials in a bad light. Needless to say, the attack on freedom of speech there is not going over well with newspapers or many other groups, but it’s yet another reminder that we can’t just assume that the liberal laws from home will apply wherever we choose to live.

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2 Responses to “Harsh sentence for American in Thailand sends a signal”

  1. frenchnational
    March 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    on the other hand, it’s not very clever to criticize king and royal family as their pictures are everywhere and Thai people seem genuinely fond of them.

  2. Tom
    March 7, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Frenchnational, I totally agree. While it might feel strange to those of us from elsewhere, I think visitors have to inform themselves and be respectful when visiting another country. -Tom

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