Recent comments by the new U.S. ambassador at a foreign press club event in Bangkok, during which he challenged lengthy sentences for people convicted of violating Lese-Majeste – Thailand’s royal defamation law – have led to a Thai police investigation against him.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand said in a statement Wednesday that it was cooperating with police investigating comments by Ambassador Glyn T. Davies during a speech at the FCCT on Nov. 25.Two days later, Thai citizens protested against Davies outside the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.
In September, Davies took up his appointment as the envoy from the U.S., one of Thailand’s most important allies but that is competing now with geopolitical rival China for influence in Southeast Asia.
Davies told the event at the FCCT last month, “We are also concerned by the lengthy and unprecedented prison sentences handed down by Thai military courts against civilians for violating the Lese-Majeste law,” which apparently led to the investigation.
“We believe no one should be jailed for peacefully expressing their views and we strongly support the ability of individuals and independent organizations to research and to report on important issues without fear of retaliation,” Glyn said, according to a recording of his speech posted on YouTube.
Davies also praised Thailand’s 88-year-old monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is reported to be in frail health and convalescing at a Bangkok hospital.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press quoted police spokesman Maj. Gen. Piyaphan Pingmuang as saying officers were investigating the ambassador’s Nov. 25 speech, because they had received a complaint that it violated Lese Majeste.
“Somebody reported it, so they have to check,” Piyaphan said, adding police were aware that nothing more could be done against Davies because of diplomatic immunity, according to AP.
Agence France-Presse reported that the police investigation arose from a document detailing a complaint made by a member of the public, which was apparently based on mistranslated quotes of Davies’ English speech.
According to the erroneous document, Davies told the audience that Washington would help independent organizations research Lese Majeste “so that they are not afraid.”
Nonetheless, the government should not be investigating Davies, Bangkok-based journalist Shawn Crispin told BenarNews.
“The entire tone of the speech was very upbeat and complimentary to the monarchy,” said Crispin, Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat.
“What happened was a division among the junta who are engaged to the U.S. and those to China by amplifying the Lese-Majeste issue. They have been able to short-circuit the U.S. Ambassador’s charm offensive before it began to gain traction.”
“The fact that the royalists attached themselves to one statement in the 90-minute presentation that aimed to repair relationship showed how absurd the charges are,” Crispin said.
Prosecutions of Thailand’s tough royal defamation laws have shot up since a military coup in May 2014 followed a court order forcing then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office. Because Lese Majeste is considered a national security offense, those charged are tried by a military court.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who as a general led the Royal Thai Army coup, has vowed to get rid of critics of the monarchy and has called for stronger prosecution of cases involving royal defamation.
News of the probe into Davies’ speech surprised embassy officials.
"We have received a number of inquiries on this topic and are preparing a response in consultation with colleagues in D.C. – the State Department spokesperson was asked about this as well,” Melissa Sweeney, the information officer at the embassy in Bangkok, told BenarNews