Thailand’s young protesters hit by royal defamation law, as pro-democracy movement wanes
- The crowds on Bangkok’s streets have thinned as Covid-19 surges and protest leaders are tied up in legal cases
- At least 58 people have been charged under the lèse-majesté law, while four have been held in pre-trial custody since February 8
“This power [of the monarchy] is the scariest thing I could ever imagine for the Thai people, it overshadows the entire nation,” Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul – better known by her nickname, Rung – told This Week in Asia before she reported to court for a royal defamation charge.
She was asked to return with several other leaders on March 8 to find out if the charge would be prosecuted. “I’ve come to terms with [being in jail] but I still have hope that they won’t lock us up forever,” Rung said.
Despite the law, for several months last year the boisterous, satire-laden youth movement showed their anger at an unequal society dominated by elderly generals loyal to the king, in protests that unspooled into calls for reform of the monarchy and open mockery of its key figures.
On August 10 last year, Rung took the stage at Thammasat University and read out 10 demands – including the crucial and at the time unprecedented call for reform of the monarchy – to an open-mouthed audience of student demonstrators.
The demands electrified Thailand, with thousands pouring onto the streets almost nightly to protest against the king’s wealth – which some estimates place at up to US$70 billion – as well as his control of elite army units and domination of politics, the latter of which pro-democrats say exceeds his formal constitutional role.
“In hindsight, maybe we focused too much on the monarchy and therefore couldn’t get as many people behind us,” Rung said. “Going forward we will be more strategic in terms of balancing our demands.”
Still, she remains defiant despite the looming possibility of incarceration. “We’ve come a long way since the taboo was smashed, I never thought that the monarchy would become a public discussion in such a short period of time.
“The power of the oppressor is slowly eroding.”
Outraged royalists eventually also came out in mass demonstrations of loyalty to the king, and now the state is biting back at young Thais whose beliefs thrust them into the limelight during an unprecedented political moment.
At least 58 people have been charged under the royal defamation law since last November, while four core leaders of the protest movement – including Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Anon Nampa – have been held in pre-trial custody since February 8.
The denial of bail to the four leaders might “signal an abrupt change in judicial behaviour”, said Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a law scholar at Chulalongkorn University. “No one can really say how far 112 can go. Anyone can be charged and punished regardless of age. It’s all about politics … it always is.”
A rally is planned for Saturday in Bangkok to call for the release of the detained leaders, with organisers hoping they can draw a large crowd and show that there is still life in the kingdom’s street politics.
The barrage of lèse-majesté charges has also drawn criticism from abroad, with a panel of United Nations human rights experts on February 8 expressing their “grave concerns”.
“The fact that some forms of expression may be considered offensive or shocking to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of such severe penalties,” the experts said in a statement.
Among the new radicals targeted by the law is Noppasin “Sainam” Treelayapewat, the 16-year-old son of a university vice-rector.
On October 29, at the height of the protests, he sashayed down a makeshift catwalk in downtown Bangkok wearing a crop top, in a swipe at the fashion choices of King Vajiralongkorn who had been photographed wearing one in a German airport.
The act saw him charged under the royal defamation law, but the police will not confirm the identity of his accuser – a sign of the opacity of the law, under which allegations can be brought by any member of the public.
“I’m angry I have been charged. What have I done wrong? But the reality is the line [about public discussion of the monarchy] has been crossed,” Sainam told This Week in Asia. “People have to stop falling for the monarchy’s propaganda. It’s time for the people to educate themselves and discuss the role of the monarchy.”
Royalists have labelled the teenager a “nation-hater”, which has seen him subjected to a torrent of online abuse, mainly from older conservatives.
But he still throws a cheeky grin atop his blunt and articulate defence of his actions.
“The ceiling is broken. But we can’t go on the street every day, the biggest battle is educating people and that is always risky,” Sainam said, with a political nous belying his years. “Politics is a dangerous game in this country.”