By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - A television show is testing the boundaries of controversial laws protecting Thailand's monarchy, drawing a rebuke from the army chief and criticism from a government minister who ruled out changes to the country's draconian lese-majeste rules.
Thailand's 85-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is often portrayed as an almost divine figure, but this view is hard to challenge when the world's toughest lese-majeste laws can make anything deemed an insult or a threat to the monarchy punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
State-owned Thai Public Broadcast Service (Thai PBS) broadcast a rare debate starting last week on the merits and misfires of the lese-majeste law, featuring a historian, a former foreign minister, a self-proclaimed "ultra-royalist" and an opponent of the monarchy.
Part of one episode in the week-long series covered the nature of public loyalty displayed towards the monarchy and whether it was genuine, something rarely questioned. Another episode showed a heated debate between the ultra-royalist and the critic on whether the lese-majeste laws should be amended.
Protests from ultra-royalists prompted the television station to delay airing the fifth and final episode on Friday. But it went out, unadvertised, on Monday evening.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, chief of the army which is seen as a bastion of royal support and has a long record of intervention in politics, questioned whether the program was appropriate given recent political conflict.
"The TV show and its contents are allowed by law but we should consider if it was appropriate. If you think Thailand and its monarchy and its laws are making you uncomfortable, then you should go live elsewhere," Prayuth told reporters.
Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by the military in 2006, when he was accused of republican sympathies, which he denied. His sister, Yingluck, is prime minister and has refused to meddle with the lese-majeste laws, despite pressure from some in the pro-Thaksin "red shirt" movement.
Even though the king said in 2005 he should not be above criticism, the number of lese-majeste cases has mounted dramatically during the political turbulence that followed the 2006 coup against Thaksin.
A government minister reiterated on Wednesday the administration would not touch the law.
"I agree with what Prayuth said," Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobumrung told reporters. "The government doesn't agree with changing Thailand's laws protecting the monarchy."
The director of Thai PBS, Somchai Suwannaban, said the country needed an open debate on the law.
"The law protecting the monarchy is being debated underground. We need constructive public debate to preserve the monarchy as it is an essential part of Thai culture," he said.
The average jail term of 20 convictions under the law over the past year was eight years, according to the Office of the Judiciary.
In the latest case, a former magazine editor was jailed for 10 years after he was found guilty of publishing articles defaming the king.
But some analysts say the law could be counter-productive.
"One has to wonder, at what point the use of lese-majeste, intended to protect the institution of the monarchy, begins to work against the long-term interests of the monarchy," David Streckfuss, a Thai-based scholar who monitors lese-majeste laws, told a recent seminar on freedom of speech.
A parliamentary panel will decide on Wednesday whether to take up complaints against Thai PBS over the show. Police often feel obliged to investigate every complaint of lese-majeste, no matter how trivial, since not to do so might expose them to accusations of disrespect.
The king has spent the last three years in hospital being treated for ill health. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has yet to command the same popular support as his father, but journalists in Thailand raising the issue of the royal succession risk jail due to the law shielding the king, queen, crown prince or regent from criticism.
(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)