24/11/2011 05:30 GMT | Updated 23/01/2012 05:12 GMT

Keeping up With the Neighbours: Thailand Jails Grandfather or 20 Years

In a sentence exceeding some those handed down for murder and rape in the country, Thailand yesterday jailed a grandfather for 20 years, for no more than sending 4 text messages allegedly insulting the country's Queen.

In a sentence exceeding some those handed down for murder and rape in the country, Thailand yesterday jailed a grandfather for 20 years, for no more than sending 4 text messages allegedly insulting the country's Queen.

The evidence against Ampon Tangnoppakul seemed inconclusive, and the sentence has been slammed by freedom-of-speech advocates as vastly-disproportionate to an alleged crime which - at most - might result in a defamation suit in other jurisdictions.

However whether or not the messages defame or insult anyone cannot be assessed, as the content of the messages has not been revealed. To do so - even in court -could in itself be deemed an act of lese-majeste, an additional absurdity to Thailand's lese-majeste laws, which already allow any person to lodge a complaint about another who they regard as insulting the country's monarchy.

Ampon denies sending the offending messages to the secretary of former Thailand prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and leaked images from the courtroom yesterday showed the cancer-suffering 61 year old waving over videolink from his flood-surrounded Bangkok prison cell to tearful family in the court where the verdict was read out.

The sentence comes five years into Thailand's cycle of political protests and on-off street violence. The number and severity of sentences against those deemed to have insulted the King, Queen or Regent has increased over those years, with King Bhumibol Adulyedej now nearing his 84th birthday and concerns about a succession feeding into the political struggles outside the palace.

Despite a free and fair parliamentary election held less than 6 months ago, Thailand's judiciary is indulging in some of the Orwellian whims more commonly-associated with authoritarian neighbours.

Vietnam is a one-party state where opposition parties are outlawed, and where journalists, writers, activists, lawyers, religious leaders - almost anyone who speak out against state policy - is jailed. Merely advocating a multiparty democracy is deemed a crime, and in Vietnam old men are also locked up for years, for no more than criticising how the country is run. Public protests are rare events and usually proceed only with state sanction, such as recent nationalist demonstrations against Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

Vietnam has gotten away with it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as a mini-me China mixing authoritarian rule with a relatively open economy, it is a draw for foreign investment. Intel opened its largest global operation outside Saigon last year, for example. Secondly, Burma's superstitious and oppressive military rulers have outranked their regional rivals in the oppression stakes, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has long captured western imaginations with her stance as a symbol of quiet resistance.

But Burma, if anything, could be on the edge of real reform, with US Sec. Of State Hillary Clinton scheduled to visit next week to assess what Pres. Barack Obama called 'flickers of progress' in the military-dominated country - though some cynics say this is all part of American attempts to counter China's increasing regional heft. After all Burma still holds an estimated 1700 political prisoners, the army/ex-army holds almost 900 seats out of just over 1100 in all levels of parliament, an estimated 500,000 people are living rough in the country's eastern jungles and mountains in the midst of the world's longest-running civil war, and the list goes on.

But the perception is that the Burmese rulers are - for whatever reason and to what ultimate extent - slowly reforming one of the world's most entrenched military-dictatorships. 'Nominally-civilian' is the uncomfortable description of choice for the current government, which freed over 200 political prisoners in October - though that same government still denies that such a category exists.

However in Thailand - long a refuge for Burmese fleeing oppression and war at home - the perception is growing that is a country where politicised taboos and witch-hunting undermine long-held claims of freedom of expression said to mark it out from neighbours such as Burma or Vietnam.