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Royal defamation takes center stage as protests roil Thailand

Over 150 Thais have been charged with lese majeste over the past year

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Published: November 09, 2021 08:04 AM GMT

Updated: November 09, 2021 08:15 AM GMT

Royal defamation takes center stage as protests roil Thailand

Royalist supporters wait for the motorcade of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn to pass in Bangkok on Oct. 13 as the royals head to a merit-making ceremony on the fifth anniversary of the passing of his father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. (Photo: AFP)

A Thai man faces the prospect of 15 years in prison for a deed that might seem like a minor misdeed: removing a portrait from a public display.

However, the portrait in question was of the country’s king, which means that Sirapat Deesawat, 35, has been charged with royal defamation, which carries a minimum of three years and a maximum of 15 years in prison as per Thailand’s Criminal Code.

In addition, when Sirapat, who is out on bail, is soon tried in a court, the session will be closed to outside observers, it has been announced.

Prosecutors say the Thai man removed a portrait of King Vajiralongkorn in a decorative golden frame from a display in August at a housing estate in Nonthaburi, outside Bangkok, which is an act that has been in violation of Thailand’s draconian lese majeste law.

“Police alleged that Sirapat stole the portrait and its frame, dragged both along the ground face down for about 190 meters,” explains the website Thai Political Prisoners, which documents rights violations in the Southeast Asian nation.

“The authorities contend that Sirapat’s actions amounted to lese majeste as the king’s portrait is meant to be respected by people and should be kept in a place befitting the king’s exalted station,” it adds.

Even statements and acts that may seem innocuous in other countries have caused anti-government demonstrators to be charged with lese majeste

Sirapat, whose actions were recorded on CCTV cameras, allegedly dumped the frame in a canal and took the portrait to a local market where he gave it to a woman, who has been charged with receiving stolen property.

“Normally an act like this would be regarded as a minor act of vandalism, which carries a small fine as a penalty. But because of the lese majeste law it is considered to be a major criminal act,” a university student, who studies law at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and supports the youth-led pro-democracy movement, told UCA News.

Sirapat is one of at least 155 Thais, mostly young democracy activists, who have been charged with royal defamation over the past year for making critical comments about the monarchy or calling for its reform, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which monitors human rights violations and offers legal aid to victims. Among those charged have been several minors who are still in high school.

Even statements and acts that may seem innocuous in other countries have caused anti-government demonstrators to be charged with lese majeste.

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Thanat Thanakitamnuay, an activist who lost an eye earlier this year when he was shot in the face during a street protest by a tear gas canister fired by riot police, has been charged with royal defamation for wearing a suit and an eye patch while carrying a camera during a street rally in August.

Prosecutors said his get-up was disrespectful mockery of the late King Bhumibol, who was an amateur photographer and lost an eye in an automobile accident in his youth.

Meanwhile, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 42, a prominent progressive politician, has been charged with two cases of royal defamation for questioning the government’s decision to award a major vaccine-manufacturing contract to a small royally owned pharmaceutical company. If convicted, Thanathorn could be sentenced to 30 years in prison in total as each lese majeste case carries its own penalty of up to 15 years in prison.

In Thailand, anyone can file a charge of royal defamation against anyone else and police are required by law to investigate every claim. In recent months royalist vigilantes have been scouring the social media posts of young pro-democracy activists in search of any content that can be deemed insulting to members of the royal family or the institution of the monarchy.

A handful of protesters dressed in yellow, a color associated with the monarchy, gathered outside a cultural center in downtown Bangkok on Nov. 7 displaying signs that called for stricter enforcement of Article 112 in the Criminal Code, also known as the lese majeste law.

“Thailand owes its existence to all the royals who have done so much for the country. By protecting the law [Article 112], we protect Thailand,” said a middle-aged woman at the event where news photographers outnumbered protesters.

We have repeatedly emphasized that lese majeste laws have no place in a democratic country

At the opposite side of the political spectrum, pro-democracy activists have been calling for Article 112 to be repealed, saying it is an antiquated and unjust law that limits freedom of speech.

Similarly, rights groups have expressed alarm at the mounting cases of lese majeste charges and have urged Thai authorities to stop prosecuting citizens for views expressed peacefully in public.

“We have repeatedly emphasized that lese majeste laws have no place in a democratic country,” rights experts affiliated with the United Nations said in a statement.

“Their increasingly harsh application has had the effect of chilling freedom of expression and further restricting civic space and the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms in Thailand.

“We call on the authorities to revise and repeal the lese majeste laws, to drop charges against all those who are currently facing criminal prosecution and release those who have been imprisoned under [it] for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly.” 

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