The U.S. government prides itself on standing up for freedom of speech around the world, but when it comes to longtime ally Thailand and its revered monarch, Washington treads carefully — even when an American citizen is thrown in jail.
Thailand on Thursday sent an American, Joe Gordon, 55, to prison for two and a half years for defaming the country's royal family after he translated excerpts of a banned biography of Thailand's king and published them online. He had been living in Colorado at the time.
The U.S. government has offered a measured response to the "severe" sentence — saying it was "troubled" by the outcome and asserting the right to free expression of people around the world. It has avoided direct criticism of Thailand over its use of laws punishing lese majeste, the crime of insulting a monarch.
Washington's comments pale next to the strident criticism it gives when dissidents, even those without U.S. ties, are jailed by more authoritarian governments in the neighborhood, like China and Vietnam. The State Department typically calls for dissidents' immediate release and urges the government in question to uphold international law.
The muted U.S. response may be partly explained by an unwillingness to spoil efforts to secure a royal pardon for Gordon, as has happened for foreigners previously convicted of lese majeste.
But it also reflects the depth of U.S. relations with Thailand, which date back to 1833. The country was viewed as a bulwark against the spread of communism and served as a key base for U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. As the Obama administration seeks to step up its engagement in Asia, it wants to consolidate its old alliances.
Washington may also view behind-the-scenes efforts to get Thai authorities to ease up on lese majeste prosecutions more effective in a society where public criticism can backfire.
Above all, it underscores the sensitivity of any critical, public discussion on Thailand's monarchy.
Thailand's lese majeste laws are the harshest in the world. They mandate that people found guilty of defaming the monarchy — including the ailing 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch — face three to 15 years behind bars. They can face stiffer sentences still under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, that punishes circulation of material online that threatens national security.
Bhumibol is revered in Thailand and widely seen as a stabilizing force. He has stayed at a Bangkok hospital for more than two years, and there is deep uncertainty about what happens when he dies, as his son and heir apparent does not command the same respect and affection. Political divisions in the country exploded into violence last year that brought the business district of the Thai capital to a halt for weeks and left more than 90 dead.
Even among Washington think tanks and U.S. universities, experts on Thailand often prefer not to discuss the monarchy and lese majeste for fear they could be blacklisted.
The lese majeste law "inhibits discussion on the future of the monarchy and the political system," said Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation think tank. "Even Americans worry of talking about it, let alone Thais."
Thailand was once seen as one of the most democratic nations in Southeast Asia, a status that has eroded during five years of political tensions. Since a military coup in 2006, there has been a sharp increase in lese majeste charges, frequently used to silence oppositional voices in the name of protecting the royalty.
Human rights groups have expressed growing concerns over censorship of the Internet, which has given Thai authorities more targets to pursue. Authorities blocked 57,000 websites for containing anti-royal content in 2010, Thai monitoring groups say.
Statistics obtained by The Associated Press from Thailand's Office of the Attorney General show that 36 lese majeste cases were sent for prosecution in 2010, compared to 18 in 2005 and just one in 2000. The figures do not include those filed under the Computer Crimes Act, nor the myriad complaints under investigation that have yet to reach trial.
This year has seen a series of stiff penalties. Last month, Amphon Tangnoppakul, a 61-year old Thai grandfather with cancer, got 20 years in prison for sending four text messages received by a government official and deemed offensive to the queen.
It was the heaviest sentence ever handed down for a lese majeste case.
Amphon, now called "Uncle SMS" by the Thai media, denies sending the messages and says he doesn't even know how to send texts. He wept in court and said, "I love the King."
The U.S. did not comment specifically on Amphon's case, but in a deviation from past practice, did say it was "troubled" by recent prosecutions and rulings inconsistent with international standards of freedom of expression. The European Union was more forthright, saying it was "deeply concerned" about Amphon's case.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said the U.S., EU, and other countries were only playing lip service to democratic values and should be more outspoken.
"In reality, these countries have also their interests aligned with the Thai monarchy and, like many Thai politicians, do not want to risk their strategic interests in Thailand," he said.
Trying to stifle dissent and keep politics under control is not much different than what China wants to do, said Paul Handley, author of the unauthorized biography "The King Never Smiles" that Gordon was punished for translating into Thai and posting online. The book is respected by most Thailand-watchers as shedding new light on Bhumibol's life. It alleges the king has been an obstacle to the progress of democracy in Thailand as he consolidated royal power over his long reign.
Aside from the lese majeste law, Thailand has a vibrant political environment, which is far from the case in China, Handley said. He was also encouraged by the new book released in Thailand marking Bhumibol's seventh decade as king, which discusses the lese majeste law and says prosecutions have harmed the image of the monarchy.
But Handley, now based in Washington, has no plans to return.
"I assume I would be arrested," Handley said. "There's no one who tells me otherwise."