On Tuesday May 8, 2012, a 62-year-old grandfather died in a prison hospital in Thailand less than a year into a 20-year jail sentence for allegedly sending four SMS messages with offensive comments about Thailand’s monarchy.
He died alone, away from his wife Rosmalin and their children and grandchildren. Ampon Tangnoppakul, widely known in Thailand by the nickname “Akong”, which means grandpa, was a victim of Thailand’s archaic and unjust lèse majesté law and the draconian Computer Crimes Act. Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code states:
Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.
Ampon was sentenced on November 23, 2011, to five years in prison for each of the SMS messages he was accused of sending. He insisted on his innocence throughout the trial and afterwards.
He told the judges that he did not know how to send an SMS message, and his family concurred on this point.
The messages were sent to Somkiat Klongwattanasak, personal secretary to former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party. Somkiat reported the messages to the police.
The prosecution was unable to explain how Ampon could have obtained Somkiat’s mobile phone number. Also, the phone number from which the messages were sent was not the same as Ampon’s number, but the prosecution alleged that the messages were sent from a phone with the same IMEI code as Ampon’s. The judges disregarded evidence about how an IMEI number can be cloned, and in general exhibited a total lack of understanding of the intricacies of mobile phone technology.
Ampon was arrested on August 3, 2010. He was held for 63 days until being granted bail on October 4, 2010. On January 18, 2011 he was formally charged and incarcerated, and he remained in jail until his death.
The Asian Human Rights Commission expressed grave concern over his treatment.
It is not yet known how Ampon died (an autopsy is pending) but when he was sentenced he was suffering from laryngeal cancer. He was prevented from receiving adequate medical treatment during his incarceration.
His death has been widely covered by the Thai and international media:
- New York Times
- Wall Street Journal
- Agence France Press
- The Nation
- Bangkok Post
- Voice of America
- The Diplomat
- Radio Australia
- United Press International
- The Herald Sun
- The Atlantic
The case was profoundly problematic for two reasons.
Firstly, the prosecution failed to prove that the text messages were sent by Ampon. The judges explicitly conceded this point in their ruling, as Thai website iLaw explains:
The attempt by Ampon’s legal team to prove that the 14 digit IMEI number used in evidence against Ampon was not reliable was dismissed by the court. The court relied on the mobile phone log provided by service provider and police witnesses to convict him.
The judge said that the prosecution could not clearly prove that the defendant was the person who sent the offensive text messages to the mobile phone of the Secretary to the then Prime Minister. But even so, because it is difficult for the prosecution to present compelling evidence, as the defendant who committed this offence would naturally conceal his actions so that others could not observe them, it is necessary to rely on circumstantial evidence which the prosecution presented to indicate the intentions of the defendant.
It is not known who sent the SMS messages. It is very unlikely that it was Ampon.
Secondly, while the messages contained offensive language and comments, there is considerable controversy over whether they should merit a 20-year jail sentence in a modern democracy, as Thailand claims to be.
The messages focused in particular on Queen Sirikit, the 79-year-old wife of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Sirikit is notorious for her extremist authoritarian views and for having actively meddled in Thai politics for decades, even though Thailand is officially a constitutional monarchy in which the palace has a purely symbolic role.
Sirikit has been estranged from Bhumibol since the mid-1980s, although this fact has not been made public in Thailand. A leaked U.S. cable reported in 2009 that:
Prior to mid-2008, the King and Queen had lived most of the past 20 years largely apart, joint public appearances excepted. This unpublicized reality started after the Queen disappeared from public view in 1986 for about six months to recover from emotional exhaustion, in the wake of the King dismissing her favorite military aide de camp. Their social circles diverged sharply from then on, with very few figures spanning both camps…
The rift between Bhumibol and Sirikit was caused by the queen’s open adoration of a military aide, Colonel Narongdej Nandha-phothidej. But the two had already been divided over issues of governance and succession. Both Bhumibol and Sirikit believe the palace should play a central political role in Thailand, but while the king favours a quiet behind-the-scenes approach, paying lip-service to whatever constitution happens to be in force, the queen is far less cautious and much more aggressive in her activism. Also, until recently, Sirikit had been adamant that the deeply unpopular and volatile Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn should succeed Bhumibol as King Rama X, despite Bhumibol’s doubts.
During 2007 and 2008, however, the succession dynamics fundamentally changed. Sirikit finally gave up on Vajiralongkorn after a video was leaked showing a bizarre birthday party for his beloved pet poodle Foo Foo in which his third wife Srirasmi grovelled on the ground, naked apart from a thong, and after the prince abandoned Srirasmi to spend most of his time in Germany with his latest mistress, while undergoing medical treatment for an unknown disease. As the secret U.S. cable revealed in 2009:
For many years, Queen Sirikit actively promoted Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s interests and was seen as his greatest backer in the face of widespread public opposition and open preference for Princess Sirindhorn. For instance, she was the driving force behind the Crown Prince’s 2003 trip to Washington, which she intended as a cornerstone effort to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of the Thai people as an acceptable future King, one who had recently remarried and would soon produce an acknowledged male heir.
The mother-son relationship suddenly changed in 2007 for two reasons: the appearance of video and still photos of Vajiralongkorn’s wife Srirasmi in the nude on the internet/CDs then widely available in Bangkok; and a noisy row over the amount of time the Crown Prince was spending outside Thailand. In 2008, the Queen and the Crown Prince had a shouting match at a hospital during the Queen’s brief hospitalization, with the Crown Prince angrily berating her in front of ladies-in-waiting… Several of the key ladies-in-waiting reportedly now refuse to be present when the Crown Prince visits the Queen…
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has spent most (up to 75%) of the past two years based in Europe (primarily at a villa at a medicinal spa 20km outside of Munich), with his leading mistress and beloved white poodle Fufu. Vajiralongkorn is believed to be suffering from a blood-related medical condition (varying sources claim he is either: HIV positive; has Hepatitis C; is afflicted by a rare form of “blood cancer,” or some combination which leads to regular blood transfusions). His current (third) wife Srirasmi and 4 year old son … known as Ong Ti, reside in his Sukhothai Palace in Bangkok, but when Vajiralongkorn travels back to Bangkok, he stays with his second mistress in the retrofitted Air Force VIP lounge at Wing Six, Don Muang Airport (note: both mistresses are Thai Airways stewardesses; the Crown Prince has shifted from flying F5s to Thai Airways Boeings and Airbuses in recent years. End note). Long known for violent and unpredictable mood swings, the Crown Prince has few people who have stayed long in his inner circle.
The schism between Sirikit and Vajiralongkorn totally altered Thailand’s political calculus. Instead of supporting her son’s right to reign after Bhumibol dies, Sirikit decided she should rule as regent herself following the king’s death, on behalf of the prince’s young son with Srirasmi. Vajiralongkorn would be frozen out of the succession. Leading royalists like Prem Tinsulanonda and Anand Panyarachun had long hated Vajiralongkorn and believed (correctly) that if he became king it would spell the end of the traditional “network monarchy” in Thailand. They allied with Sirikit to try to engineer her dominance following Bhumibol’s death, and this opened a new dimension in Thailand’s political conflict. Because populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra was believed to be an ally of Vajiralongkorn, the royalists became more determined than ever to crush his political influence. They feared that if a government controlled by Thaksin was in power when Bhumibol died, they would be unable to prevent Vajiralongkorn becoming King Rama X. (Ironically, although the king’s relationship with his son and heir broke down decades ago, he now seems to favour Vajiralongkorn as his successor, in a complete reversal of the previous positions of Bhumibol and Sirikit.)
From 2006, Sirikit began intervening actively to thwart Thaksin and to support the extreme-right-wing ultra-royalist Yellow Shirt movement. As a confidential U.S. cable reported in November 2008:
The battle lines in Thailand’s political environment are clearly drawn, even if there are multiple actors in play… The Thaksin machine faces off against a mix of royalists, Bangkok middle class, and southerners, with Queen Sirikit having emerged as their champion, as King Bhumibol largely fades from an active role… They are positioning themselves for what key actors on both sides freely admit to us in private will be Thailand’s moment of truth — royal succession after the King passes away.
On October 13, 2008, Queen Sirikit abandoned any pretence of being above politics when she presided over the funeral rites of Angkhana Radappanyawut, nicknamed “Nong Bow”, a Yellow Shirt supporter killed during fighting between police and anti-Thaksin protesters trying to disrupt the functioning of parliament on October 7. As the U.S. embassy commented:
Queen Sirikit, departing from the example set by King Bhumibol over decades, has dragged an ostensibly apolitical monarchy into the political fray, to the institution’s probable future detriment…
Queen Sirikit…made a bold political statement practically without precedent in presiding over the funeral of a PAD supporter from humble roots who died during the October 7 clash between PAD and the police. Even some figures close to the Queen have expressed their private unease at the overtly political act, since it seems to erode the concept, which the King has long sought to promote, of an apolitical monarchy. After the Queen’s funeral appearance, there was a notable increase in public complaints about acts of lese majeste, with many seemingly targeting the Queen…
Such politicization of the monarchy at this time appears to create extra uncertainty around the eventual royal succession, and it could well boomerang on royalists when the time comes to redefine the role of the monarchy after the King’s passing.
Sirikit’s clumsy intervention sparked unprecedented criticism of her actions and of the Thai monarchy. It was the final proof for many Thais that the palace was their enemy, not their protector. There was a stunning surge in online attacks on Sirikit. In response, the pro-Sirikit military leadership cracked down harshly on dissent. As another U.S. cable observed:
Online and open public criticism of Thai royals, particularly of Queen Sirikit, has increased recently…
The rise in high-profile lese majeste cases, the frequency of online remarks bordering on lese majeste, and the seriousness of the authorities’ response indicates that some segments of society are highly dissatisfied with the behavior of some members of the royal family, if not the institution itself. If the authorities were to harshly repress critics of the monarchy, this could prove counterproductive, as quiet discourse in many circles could shift from mere gossip about some royals’ distasteful behavior to a more weighty questioning of the monarchy’s role after the death of widely-beloved King Bhumibol.
This is the background to growing hostility towards Sirikit in Thailand. She has become a hated figure for many Thais. U.S. cables report that banners attacking Sirikit were seen across southern Thailand in August 2009, and that pictures of the queen were vandalized in the northeastern Isaan province. There has also been widespread (but unconfirmed) online speculation that Sirikit is in possession of a priceless blue diamond stolen from the Saudi royal family by a Thai migrant worker in 1989 (a story I covered here).
The four SMS messages allegedly sent by Ampon Tangnoppakul focus on these issues. Whoever sent them was, like many Thais, deeply contemptuous of Queen Sirikit. The content of the messages has not been made public until now. The four messages are reproduced below, with a colloquial English-language translation. They are taken from a court document which can be viewed in its entirety in PDF format here:
- First SMS. May 9, 2010. ขึ้นป้ายด่วน อีราชนีชั่วมันไม่ยอมเอาเพชรไดรมอนด์ไปคืนซาอุฯ ราชวงศ์หัวควยมันพังแน่ [Put it on billboards urgently, the evil queen refuses to return the diamond to Saudi, this dickhead dynasty will surely collapse.]
- 2nd SMS, May 11, 2010. อีราชีนีชั่ว อีหีเหล็กมึงแน่จริงมึงส่งทหารเหี้ยๆ มาปราบพวกกูซิวะ โคตรอีดอกทอง ชั่วทั้งตระกูล [The evil queen, the iron cunt, if you are brave enough, send your damn army to crack down on us, you master of whores, family of the bad people.]
- 3rd SMS, May 12, 2010. สมเด็จพระเจ้าอยู่หัวหัวควย อีราชีนีหีเหล็ก ไอ้อีสองตัวนี้มันบงการฆ่าประชาชน ต้องเอาส้นตีนเหยียบหน้ามัน [His Majesty dickhead king, the iron cunt queen, both of them ordered the killing of people. We will stamp on their faces with our heels.]
- 4th SMS, May 22, 2010. ช่วยบอกไอ้สมเด็จพระเจ้าอยู่หัวหัวควยกับอีราชินีหีเหล็ก และลูกหลานมันทุกๆ คนต้องตาย [Please tell his majesty dickhead King, the iron cunt queen and all of their children, you’ll all die.]
The messages are offensive and inflammatory. Their content is likely to shock many Thais, whatever their views about the monarchy. There is no convincing evidence they were sent by Ampon. And whoever sent them surely did not deserve 20 years in jail in a 21st century democracy.
Bhumibol himself remains estranged from Sirikit, and since September 2009 he has lived a reclusive existence in Siriraj Hospital on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river that weaves through Bangkok, refusing to return home to one of his palaces even when his doctors cleared him to do so. His physical health is clearly failing, but it is his mental health that worries many in the Thai elite. As leading royalist Anand Panyarachun told U.S. ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce back in 2007:
Anand said he was less concerned about the King’s physical health than about his ability to receive objective advice and to benefit from the company of friends. Anand remarked that half the people who work at the Palace did so only to acquire status and peddle influence; only around one-third of those at the court were there solely out of devotion to the King. He said the King was lonely and, for the most part, could not select the people with whom he spends his time.
In October 2009, Suthep Thaugsuban, the corrupt secretary-general of the royalist Democrat Party, told the U.S. embassy that Bhumibol was mentally ill:
Tapping his forehead, Suthep claimed that the King’s physical health was okay, but that the really worry was his state of mind, depressed at the state of affairs in his Kingdom at the end of his life.
An unnamed longtime foreign resident of Thailand made a similar observation, also reported in a leaked U.S. cable:
There is clearly no way for anyone to analyze accurately the King’s state of mind, or draw certain conclusions between political developments, possible mental stress, and his physical ailments. However, one long-time expat observer of the Thai scene, present in Thailand since 1955, has repeatedly asserted to us over the past year that the King shows classic signs of depression — “and why wouldn’t he, seeing where his Kingdom has ended up after 62 years, as his life comes to an end” — and claims that such mental anguish likely does affect his physical condition/failing health.
In November 2009, U.S. ambassador Eric G. John wrote that Bhumibol was:
by many accounts beset long-term by Parkinson’s, depression, and chronic lower back pain…
The king’s relationship with his wife and most of his children has been poisoned. Only his second daughter, Sirindhorn, remains close to him. The widespread reverence that many Thais felt for him for decades is collapsing. Like Ampon, he seems fated to die isolated and heartbroken, another tragic victim of Thailand’s royalist curse.