The End of ‘Uncle SMS’: Thai Grandfather Jailed for Text Messages Dies in Prison

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Christophe Archambault / AFP / Getty Images

Thai activists install banners and pictures of Amporn Tangnoppakhun during a gathering held outside Bangkok Remand Prison on May 8, 2012.

When Amporn Tangnoppakhun, a 61-year-old retired truck driver and grandfather was last year convicted of defaming the country’s constitutional monarchy  and sentenced to 20 years in prison, even some who revere Thailand’s royal family believed an injustice had been done. Troubled as they were by the case, however, most believed Amporn would receive a royal pardon from 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has himself criticized provisions on lèse majesté. But before he could apply for a royal pardon, Amporn, who had been battling cancer, died in a prison hospital. 

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Amporn was nicknamed “Ah Kong”, or Grandpa, and “Uncle SMS,” because he was convicted of sending text messages to the prime minster’s sectretary that allegedly insulted and threatened members of the royal family. The messages were received in 2010, during a period of high political tensions when soldiers were confronting demonstrators on the streets of Bangkok.When confronted with the evidence at trial, the frail and white-haired Amporn broke down in tears, professing that he would never express such sentiments because he loves the king. He also insisted that he did not know the prime minister’s secretary or his number, and did not even know how to send text messages, only how to make and receive calls. The case hinged on whether the calls could be traced to Amporn’s phone. At his trial, a representative of a mobile phone service provider testified that it is possible for a hacker to “spoof” a number, essentially hijacking someone else’s identity. The judges said there was no proof that had happened.

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Had Amporn been charged with rape or murder, this level of reasonable doubt may have led to his acquittal. But all too often, when it comes to lèse majesté in Thailand, reasonable doubt, and a good deal of common sense among the authorities, seems to disappear. According to David Streckfuss, an academic expert on the law and who contributed to the book King Bhumibol Adjulyadej A Life’s Work, until recent years the lèse majesté law “appeared to be falling into virtual disuse.” But the number of cases exploded in 2006 when the military deposed then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup. Although the generals cited a litany of abuses for ousting Thaksin, they sought to legitimize their seizure of power by claiming that Thaksin, who was and remains popular with the majority of the Thai electorate, was disloyal to the throne. Thaksin denies the claim.

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By citing disloyalty, the generals succeeded in dragging the monarchy into politics, something the king during his 65 years on the throne has consistently said the institution should avoid. It placed many Thais in the uncomfortable position of questioning which they valued more: democracy or a monarch many view with quasi-religious devotion. Debates raged. Accusations flew. Prosecutions followed. Prior to the coup, there was an average of five lèse majesté cases filed with the courts each year. Since 2006, there have been more than 400.  In Thailand, insulting the monarchy can incite a level of outrage similar to what some of faith feel when another blasphemes against their god or religion. Violence can and has erupted over perceived attacks on the institution. Consequently, police, prosecutors, government officials and judges are all reluctant to dismiss even the most outlandish or frivolous cases for fear of being labeled disloyal themselves. And so Amporn’s case went forward — and so did his conviction.

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Even as some supporters of the monarchy have called for amending the law to prevent further injustices, political leaders have declined to act. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, has said she will make no move to change the lèse majesté law. Her refusal is seen as an attempt to repair relations with the military and conservative elements in the country’s power establishment. A few hours after Amporn’s death, pro-Thaksin Red Shirt demonstrators, a group to which Amporn had no known ties and some of whose members are openly anti-monarchy, descended upon the prison, set up a stage outside its gates and launched a protest.

King Bhumibol believes the lèse majesté law damages the monarchy and has called for related charges to be dropped and for prisoners to be released. His wishes, though, continue to be ignored.

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