Page last updated at 07:37 GMT, Friday, 7 November 2008

Thai arrest over 'royal insult'

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Anti-government demonstrators wave the national flag in front of a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit in Bangkok on 29 August 2008
Protesters say they are defending the revered royal family

One of Thailand's best-known social activists has been arrested on charges of insulting the monarchy.

Sulak Sivaraksa is often described as the founder of Thailand's movement of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The 76-year-old was detained in connection with a speech he made last December. He has been released on bail.

Thailand's strict lese majeste law prohibits any criticism of the monarchy, and is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The authorities have been invoking the law more frequently in recent months, at a time of heightened political tension and uncertainty over the future of the monarchy.

'Defending monarchy'

Officially, Thailand's revered monarchy is above politics. In reality, though, it is now at the centre of a debate that is raging in Thailand over what kind of political system the country should have.

The anti-government protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have justified their disruptive actions in the government's Bangkok offices by claiming they are defending the monarchy against a plot to abolish it.

The government, led by allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, insists it has no such plans.

A decision by the queen to preside over the funeral of a PAD protester last month has only added fuel to the debate, with many in the Thaksin camp complaining that she has taken sides.

In an attempt to protect the monarchy's image, the army has warned that it will not tolerate anything that could be interpreted as criticism of the royal family.

Charges mount

Mr Sulak is the latest casualty of this tough stance - he was arrested over comments he made to a human rights forum last December. He has been charged for the same offence twice before, in 1986 and 1991, but was acquitted in both cases.

Earlier this year a government minister lost his job after being accused of insulting the monarchy; two student activists have also been charged for failing to stand up for the king's anthem in a cinema; and an Australian writer is in jail awaiting trial on charges he insulted the crown prince in a novel.

The police say they are processing 32 cases of lese majeste - an unusually high number.

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