Thailand protests
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Pro-democracy protest leader Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul holds up the three-finger salute outside the Office of the Attorney General in Bangkok on February 17. Photo: AFP

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
Rung, 23, is the bookish-looking student leader whose demands for royal reform roused a kingdom. Sainam, 16, has electric-blue hair and is in big trouble for wearing a crop top to mock a king. Both are facing the full weight of the law as members of Thailand’s younger generation who are calling to limit the power of the country’s generals and its monarchy.
The crowds on Bangkok’s streets have ebbed amid a resurgence of Covid-19 and a loss of direction between the disparate protest groups whose leaders are tied up in legal cases, leaving prominent protesters exposed to charges under a divisive royal defamation law.

“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.

Thailand ramps up use of royal insult law, further stoking dissent among activists

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.

Thailand has some of the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world, shielding the ultra-rich and powerful monarchy headed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn from criticism. Known as “112” after its section in the Thai criminal code, the law carries a penalty of between three and 15 years in jail per charge of defaming the royal institution.

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.

Thai protesters scale Bangkok’s Democracy Monument calling for abolition of royal insults law

But as the mass rallies dissipated, even moderate voices targeting only the government of ex-army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha and a constitution which tips the balance of power to the military have been drowned out.

“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.”

Pro-democracy protesters throw paint at riot police during clashes following a demonstration at the Democracy Monument. Photo: DPA

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.”

Thailand jails woman for more than 43 years for insulting monarchy

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.”