Updated: June 21, 2021 04:52 AM GMT
Pro-democracy activist Parit 'Penguin' Chiwarak makes the three-finger salute as he is released from Bangkok Remand Prison on May 11 after he was granted bail amid deteriorating health following a hunger strike that lasted more than 50 days. (Photo: AFP)
A prominent Thai student activist has been slapped with yet more charges of royal defamation, bringing the total of lese majeste charges filed against him to 20 in what rights activists describe as a travesty.
Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, a 22-year-old political science student at Thammasat University, had the latest charges filed against him last week over comments he made on Facebook last year which were deemed insulting to Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn.
In Thailand, royal defamation is a crime under Article 112 of the Criminal Code and is punishable by up to 15 years in prison per charge, which means that Parit could potentially be sentenced to hundreds of years in prison if convicted on all counts.
In recent months Parit and numerous other members of a student-led pro-democracy movement have been charged with various crimes including lese majeste and sedition.
Rights activists say that by throwing the book at outspoken young Thais, the military-allied government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who seized power in a coup in 2014, has been pulling out all the stops to penalize dissenters.
“The conservative establishment continues to use their old playbook, [which is to] criminalize opinions that they see as threatening to their rule,” a Catholic student activist who declined to be named told UCA News.
We have repeatedly emphasized that lese majeste laws have no place in a democratic country
“In this country murderers often get only a few years in prison, but you can be locked up for decades if you criticize [the monarchy].”
Thailand’s royal family has long been portrayed officially as sacrosanct and all Thais are expected to treat the royals with reverence.
However, student demonstrators who have been clamoring for political reforms for over a year broke a taboo by openly criticizing members of the royal family in what has come as a shock to many older Thais who have been accustomed to speaking of the royals only with the utmost respect.
Parit has especially been an outspoken critic of the country’s royals and was detained in February without bail while awaiting his trial on charges of royal defamation, sedition and other alleged crimes.
He was later released on bail after he had gone on a long hunger strike in prison, but Thai authorities have since filed further charges against him.
In all, more than 80 Thais, including several minors still in high school, are facing lese majeste charges, which has alarmed foreign rights activists.
“We have repeatedly emphasized that lese majeste laws have no place in a democratic country,” United Nations-affiliated human rights experts 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 [this law] for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly.”
Student activists themselves have been calling for Article 112 of the Criminal Code to be repealed, arguing that it was an inherently unjust law that only served to stifle dissent.
However, even calling for the law to be abolished can result in a charge of royal defamation in Thailand.