But national dignity can be salvaged if it withdraws legal charges against the Phuketwan journalists
THERE IS no logical explanation why the Royal Thai Navy is stubbornly pursuing a legal case against two journalists from the online newspaper Phuketwan over a report on human trafficking in which they merely quoted an international news agency.
Equally unjustifiable is the failure of the Defence Ministry to intervene.
Is every institution so desperate to protect its own skin that they have relinquished the courage to see how embarrassing this case is for Thailand and its armed forces?
The journalists, Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison, went on trial this week despite pleas from the United Nations for the government to drop the case.
If they are found guilty, the pair could face up to seven years in jail for defamation and for violating the Computer Crimes Act.
The charges concern a July 17, 2013 Phuketwan article that simply quoted a Reuters story alleging that Thai Navy officials were involved in trafficking in Rohingya migrants fleeing Myanmar.
Reuters has faced no legal action over its report, which earned a Pulitzer Prize last year.
Following the discovery in May of more than 30 bodies buried in ''trafficking camps'' in Songkhla, a massive investigation launched by Thai authorities resulted in local officials being detained on suspicion of aiding the traffickers.
It is hardly out of the question that official complicity might have stretched to Thai naval officials, who can have no special claim to probity over other men in uniform.
If the Navy, in its embarrassment, wanted to make a show of its claimed innocence, why go after this small Web-based news outlet?
Almost every major news publication in Thailand carried the Reuters reports in question. Some have dispatched their own reporters to investigate the grim trade in human beings.
For an institution tasked with the crucial duty of defending the nation, it seems undignified to say the least that the Navy is persecuting journalists in order to save face.
Criticism of the action has poured in from all corners, including the United Nations Human Rights Office, which has urged the authorities to drop the charges.
"Freedom of the press, including freedom for journalists to operate without fear of reprisals, is essential in promoting transparency and accountability on issues of public interest," the UN said in a statement.
The plea is nothing new. Similar calls for reason in the face of military "pride" were made during the tenure of the Yingluck Shinawatra government, but the imperative of political survival meant it couldn't afford to defy the Navy's legal push against Chutima and Morison.
That duty now falls to the junta leaders who ousted the elected government last year. Will they have the courage and common sense to do the right thing?
When the Reuters story was first published, Yingluck said Thailand would work with the UN and the United States on any investigation into the possible involvement of Thai officials in the trafficking.
The UN, the US and the rest of the international community welcomed her announcement. But hindsight suggests that Yingluck was just buying time.
Her reluctance was almost certainly borne of an unwillingness to offend the same military that had ousted her brother Thaksin from power in 2006. But the junta doesn't have such a luxury.
The only question is whether it has the courage to do what's right.
It is not too late to drop the charges. The longer this case drags on, the more embarrassment Thailand must endure.
A more sensible approach would be to launch an inquiry into Reuters' allegation. But instead of taking that route, the Navy has decided to harass the messengers.
In doing so it threatens to set a precedent that would open the way to further persecution of civil society by the military.
And choosing that path could damage the confidence of prospective investors both domestic and foreign, further undermining our already shaky economy.
Shooting the messengers will do nothing to restore the Navy's loss of face, but by doing the right thing and dropping the charges, it can at least retrieve its dignity.
The trial of the Phuketwan journalists concluded yesterday at Phuket Provincial Court after three days of testimony. A verdict is scheduled to be delivered on September 1.