New Mandala has long sought to draw attention to the injustices of Thailand’s lese majeste law.

From Oliver Jufer and Harry Nicolaides, to Suwicha Thakor and Daranee “Da Torpedo” Charnchoengsilpakul, whenever a lese majeste case is prosecuted, and every time an outrageous sentence is proclaimed, we receive a tragic spike in readership. Outrage is voiced by those on all sides, and no sides, of our increasingly vociferous debates.

Whenever I am asked about contemporary Thai political matters, I try to explain that as the clock counts down to the end of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign there are some obvious, but not entirely persuasive, reasons for continuing the draconian enforcement of the lese majeste law. Of course, the general idea is that it shields the palace from scrutiny of its unpublicised political and economic activities. Sympathetic observers claim that the royals are not in a position to defend themselves from critical jabs. There is also a sense that without drastic restrictions on what is considered appropriate public comment a barrage of information about the royal family, and particularly Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, would mortally wound the institution.

I am unconvinced by these lines of argument but, then again, I am not entrusted with preserving the Chakri dynasty and all it represents. For those sitting in high-backed chairs in the Privy Council I’m sure there are very serious concerns about what might happen if tabloid journalism, the radical fringe and ordinary Thai citizens started to more openly mull over the future of the monarchy. From that perspective I can understand how, in an age-old cocktail, conservatism mixes with fear to keep renegades such as “Da Torpedo” locked up. Her incarceration sets a stern precedent. The palace has its reasons for keeping the lese majeste law in force.

But the more important question is something like this: does the abolition of the lese majeste law makes good sense for Thailand?

This is a question that could never be put to a vote in the kingdom. There is a small chance that even posing it here leaves me liable to hoary charges of lese majeste.

A democratic society benefits, in all sorts of ways, from a free press and the resulting opportunities to pass judgement on the performance of leaders. The lengthy sentences received by the likes of Suwicha and Daranee will simply drive these judgements underground until such time as they steam up and boil over into the public domain. The Internet guarantees that Daranee’s 18-year sentence will be drawn to the attention of hundreds of thousands of inquisitive Thais. If New Mandala’s traffic logs are anything to go by, they are increasingly finding their way to websites like this one. Many, no doubt, disagree with what we write. They will read and digest and make up their own minds. Some will take what they find online back to their offices, universities, farms, schools, hospitals, police stations, markets, and army bases, and all the other places where fresh news and gossip add extra elements to political discussions.

The Great Firewall of Chitralada can only be built so high.

For that reason, while New Mandala may have failed to get Taronga Zoo’s elephant named “Suwicha”, we are still more than prepared to provide an open forum to discuss these important issues.

These are discussions that have now been reignited by Daranee’s harsh sentence. Some months ago I suggested that “‘Da Torpedo’ remains a formidable weapon against the lese majeste law”. Her 18-year sentence, and her intention to appeal, gives me no reason to change that assessment.

What would happen if her appeal is allowed to be heard in an open court, with a full press corps prepared to report on every last word of proceedings?

UPDATE (1 September 2009): Broken links fixed. Thanks for pointing them out.