Thailand is facing mounting international pressure to reform its sweeping lèse majesté laws. But observers say leaders in the Southeast Asian nation may have little appetite to significantly change the controversial legislation.

This week, the United Nations’ free speech watchdog urged Thailand to revamp its lèse majesté laws, arguing that its ambiguity and harsh punishments have left the legislation open to abuse.

“The threat of a long prison sentence and vagueness of what kinds of expression constitute defamation, insult, or threat to the monarchy, encourage self-censorship and stifle important debates on matters of public interest,” said Frank La Rue, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Article 112 of Thailand’s penal code makes it a crime—punishable by prison terms of up to 15 years— to “defame, insult or threaten” the country’s revered monarchy. Authorities have also used a separate Computer Crimes Act to block websites and pursue people deemed to have overstepped the legal boundaries online.

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, La Rue said Thailand is obligated to guarantee the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.”

Prosecutions skyrocket

Thailand has seen a dramatic spike in lèse majesté prosecutions since a 2006 coup that ousted divisive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Research by independent academic David Streckfuss suggests that prosecutions for lèse majesté skyrocketed to almost 400 between 2006 and 2009. Before then, there were only a handful of prosecutions each year.

Many of those snared by the law have been associated with the Thaksin-aligned Red Shirt movement, leading critics to charge that the lèse majesté law has been used to target political opponents.

But the net has also been cast wide enough to catch people like Joe Gordon, a Thai-American blogger who was charged after he allegedly posted a link to a banned biography of the King. He pleaded guilty to insulting the monarchy this week, telling journalists that he felt he had “no choice”. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for November 9.

'Chilling effect'

On the other hand, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of Thai news website Prachatai, was deemed to have breached the Computer Crimes Act because of an offending comment a user posted on the site's public forum.

Chiranuch is waiting for her trial to continue in February 2012—almost three years after her arrest. In the meantime, she says Prachatai has decided to remove its popular web forum to avoid further complications.

“It’s had a chilling effect,” Chiranuch said in an interview. “I think it’s quite clear that these kinds of problems need to be reviewed and reformed.”

In response to the concerns of the UN special rapporteur, Thai authorities this week defended the aim of its lèse majesté law, but also admitted that it may have been misused.

“There have been cases where the law has been enforced in such a way that may not be in line with its purpose of protecting the dignity of the monarchy,” a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said in a statement.

The statement noted that a national police committee had been set up to screen for potential abuses of the lèse majesté law, while a review of the Computer Crimes Act will also be forthcoming.

Politically vulnerable

But observers say the political climate in Thailand may leave new Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra little room to enact significant reforms. As the sister of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin, she swept to power on the backs of support from the Red Shirts, who have been labelled as anti-monarchist by their pro-Royalist opponents.

“Her supporters and her rise to power have been accompanied by allegations of disloyalty to the crown,” said political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“Touching article 112 in any way would exacerbate her vulnerabilities and provide her opponents with key ammunition to rise up against her rule.”

In the meantime, others say the rampant use of the law as it stands now could hurt the institution of the monarchy in the long run.

“The law politicises the monarchy,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an analyst with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“The law has been used too much. Anyone can now claim to do it because they love the King, when in fact they do it to undermine their opponents."

This story was first published by Radio Netherlands Worldwide.