Updated: November 15, 2021 04:46 AM GMT
A protester addresses the crowd during a street rally in Bangkok on Nov 14. against a controversial law that makes it a crime to criticize the Thai monarchy. (Photo: UCA News)
Numerous young protesters who gathered near police headquarters in the commercial heart of Bangkok carried signs, but few of the signs were as poignant as one written in English. “I skipped finals to commit treason,” it said.
To the uninitiated, this protest message may have come across as a joke, but those in the know knew better.
The sign at the Nov. 14 protest amply summed up the state of affairs in the Southeast Asian nation, whose Constitutional Court declared last week in a highly controversial decision that three young democracy activists’ calls for monarchy reform were acts of sedition — treason in other words.
The demonstrators were now venting their anger at the court, which ruled that three activists — Arnon Nampa, 37, a human rights lawyer; Panupong Jadnok, 24, a social activist; and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, 23, a university student and democracy activist — who had been calling for a reform of the Thai monarchy along new constitutional lines sought to overthrow both the state and the nation’s highest institution.
The decision has effectively made any call for reform of the monarchy an act of treason, a crime that carries the death penalty. The three democracy activists have already been facing charges of royal defamation — a crime punishable with up to 15 years in prison per count according to Article 112 of the Criminal Code.
In their manifesto with 10 demands issued last year during a pro-democracy protest, the three activists called for constitutional reform of the monarchy and the abolition of Article 112, under which at least 155 Thais have been charged with royal defamation over the past year.
What made the ruling particularly absurd was that all three activists have always made it clear that they want reform of the monarchy, not abolition
Following the court’s ruling against the three activists, who had not been allowed to present their case to the judges, pro-democracy and rights experts have been lambasting the decision, which they say further limits the basic freedoms of Thai citizens.
Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a Scottish journalist who is a prominent political commentator on Thailand, has called the court’s decision “a shocking judgment that shattered any remaining hopes that Thailand can find a peaceful path to royal reform” in his analysis of the verdict.
The court’s judgment also contradicted evidence, the commentator stressed. “What made the ruling particularly absurd was that all three activists have always made it clear that they want reform of the monarchy, not abolition,” he said.
Sunai Phasuk, a Bangkok-based researcher at Human Rights Watch, was no less scathing in his own assessment. “The ruling today is essentially a judicial coup that replaces constitutional monarchy in Thailand with absolute monarchy,” the rights activist said.
Others have stressed that the ruling went against basic democratic principles by further constraining the freedoms of speech and conscience of Thais.
“This decision has drawn a line and creates a ‘red zone,’ meaning that if you don’t want to get charged or punished, don’t speak about the monarchy,” said Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a legal expert who was a prominent member of the progressive Future Forward Party, which was dissolved by the same court early last year on a legal technicality.
In an ironic twist, a member of the ruling military-allied Phalang Pracharath Party then said he would lodge a police complaint against Piyabutr and former Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit because they were committing treason and sedition for supporting the student-led monarchy-reform movement.
“I am worried that the young are being manipulated by people who are not being held accountable,” said Sira Jenjaka, the ruling party’s MP.
Thanathorn has already been charged with two counts of royal defamation for criticizing the government’s decision to award an exclusive vaccine-manufacturing license to a small royally owned pharmaceutical company with no proven experience in vaccine manufacturing.
If convicted, the progressive politician could be sentenced to 30 years in prison.
That [the coup] was a real case of treason. But in Thailand up is down and down is up, black is white and white is black
Numerous commenters and rights advocates have accused the Constitutional Court of engaging in double standards because it has had nothing to say about a military coup that toppled an elected government in 2014, led by then army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha, who remains prime minister more than seven years later.
“That [the coup] was a real case of treason,” a young pro-democracy activist told UCA News. “But in Thailand up is down and down is up, black is white and white is black.”
During the street protest on Nov. 14, hundreds of protesters carried signs calling for Article 112 to be abolished and a return to democracy.
Police officers armed with semi-automatic weapons stood in formidable lines to prevent demonstrators from marching to police headquarters a few hundred meters away.
The demonstrators decided not to challenge police in riot gear, but one protester was shot in the stomach and wounded when he approached the officers. He was carried away in an ambulance.
“All they [the authorities] are doing is making us hate them even more,” a young demonstrator told UCA News. “This country doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to the people.”
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