There are currently six countries in Asia with royal families: Japan, Malaysia, Cambodia, Bhutan, Brunei and Thailand. Each possesses unique lèse-majesté laws, which criminalize insults against the monarch and members of the royal family. In Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand, a disturbing trend of censorship under the guise of lèse-majesté has been escalating for years. The history, rationale and application of these laws can shed insights on their claim to legitimacy, what they perceive to be threats, and whether they have evolved into a new form of censorship disguised by calls for respect and propriety.
In Japan, the last lèse-majesté conviction occurred in 1946, when a factory worker held up a placard mocking the emperor during postwar food shortages. However, the accused was soon pardoned under an imperial amnesty commemorating the new constitution, which does not include lèse-majesté articles. Under the new constitution, the emperor was protected as an individual and as a symbolic head of state, with an emphasis placed on respect rather than an acknowledgment of exalted status. Japan is a constitutional monarchy, with parliament controlling the government and the emperor holding a largely ceremonial role. However, a constitutional monarchy is no guarantee of reasonable lèse-majesté laws.
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In Malaysia, while the Malay home minister had said that there was no need for lèse-majesté laws, the Sedition Act of 1948 is more than enough to serve the same purpose. A colonial relic, the legislation bans any act or speech of “seditious tendency” against the government or any of the country’s nine sultans. Calls for reforms have been repeatedly delayed, and at least 97 cases of social media users criticizing Malay rulers have been investigated. In a country with multiple ethnicities and religions, social harmony is cited as the basis for the law and dissidents are blamed for inciting division.
Cambodia adopted its own lèse-majesté laws in 2018, allowing prosecutors to file suit on behalf of the monarchy against anyone deemed to be insulting it. Punishments range from prison terms and fines unaffordable for most Cambodians. The first application of the new legislation occurred when a teacher was arrested for his comments on Facebook accusing the king of the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP was the sole challenger to the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and, months later, a CNRP deputy leader was likewise accused of lèse-majesté.
While Bhutan does not have lèse-majesté provisions, Section 317 of its penal code relating to defamation has been applied against a journalist who shared an online petition against a business mogul. The mogul also happens to be the father-in-law of the chief justice of Bhutan, himself a royal appointee, and criticism against royally appointed officials can be seen as direct criticism of the monarch.
Sources on Brunei’s lèse-majesté laws are scant, but the deputy director of the Royal Brunei Police Force had previously made a complaint of defamation to the Indonesian police. The deputy director is himself a member of the Brunei royal family, and the complaint was made over an Instagram account that posted pictures of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah with insulting comments. There were no further reports on this complaint and the offending photos were later deleted from the account.
Of the six countries, Thailand has by far applied its lèse-majesté laws most aggressively, and the number of convictions is on the rise. Before 2020, the last cases under the legislation were prosecuted in 2018, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has attributed the drop to the mercy of King Vajiralongkorn. However, cases rose in parallel with protests that began in July last year, calling for Prayuth’s resignation, the revision of the constitution and reform of the monarchy.
The protest leaders have been charged with lèse-majesté, and the Thai government is now prosecuting social media giants for not curtailing posts critical of the royal family. Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code specifies that anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent” will be punished with a jail term between three and 15 years, while the Thai Constitution also states that “No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.” Individuals charged or investigated under lèse-majesté legislation include a BBC correspondent, a US ambassador, a celebrity fortune-teller as well as activists and ordinary folks sharing posts on social media.
The previous United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion of freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, had called the provisions “incompatible with international human rights law.” The law allows anyone to file a complaint, and the minimum sentence of three years makes it impossible for judges to reduce jail time for civilians who must work to support their families.
Needless to say, if criticism of the monarchy is automatically equated with disrespect, there is little room for a free press to perform its role as a watchdog in countries like Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand. Taken to the extreme, lèse-majesté laws can create an environment filled with fear and petty denunciations, but they are unlikely to completely squelch public dissatisfaction. Soviet-era censorship gave birth to a culture of satire and circumvention tactics, and while social media may make policing personal opinions easier, it also spreads the word of dissent much faster between the like-minded. In some cases at least, trying to quash criticism may be the best way to draw attention to it.
*[Fair Observer is a media partner of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.]
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