Royal noble consort Sineenat Bilaskalayani greets supporters outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok on Nov. 1, 2020. Criticism of the monarchy is punishable by long jail sentences in Thailand. (Photo: AFP)
Prominent United Nations-affiliated human rights experts have expressed “grave concerns over Thailand’s increasingly severe use of lese majeste laws to curtail criticism of the monarchy.”
In a statement released on Feb. 8 by the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner in Geneva, Switzerland, the seven international experts said the widespread use of the royal defamation law, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison per count, is a grave violation of human rights.
“We have repeatedly emphasized that lese majeste laws have no place in a democratic country,” the UN’s experts said in their joint 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.”
In the past few weeks, 58 people — including numerous young pro-democracy activists and even two minors — have been charged with royal defamation, several of them multiple times.
The charges come after months-long youth-led street protests late last year during which many participants were calling for large-scale political reforms, including new constitutional limits on the influence of Thailand’s monarchy.
In the latest case, reported on Feb. 8, a 37-year-old pro-democracy activist was charged with lese majeste for pretending to genuflect as he exclaimed “Long live Your Majesties” to a group of prominent pro-democracy activists at a small flash rally held at a Bangkok shopping mall on Dec. 20.
Police said the man’s gesture was meant to mock members of the royal family, in whose presence commoners are expected to prostrate themselves and show deference.
In Thailand, even voicing mild criticism or showing the slightest sign of disrespect can get someone charged with royal defamation and sentenced to years in prison.
The sudden spike in lese majeste charges in recent weeks has raised alarm about the apparent intent of the Thai government to crush the country’s grassroots democracy movement.
Led by Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief turned prime minister who seized power in a coup in 2014, Thailand’s military-allied government has been bringing numerous charges against prominent young activists and opposition figures, including sedition and royal defamation.
“We are profoundly disturbed by the reported rise in the number of lese majeste prosecutions since late 2020 and the harsher prison sentences,” the UN’s rights experts said.
They cited the case of an elderly woman who was recently sentenced to 43 years in prison for sharing audio clips critical of Thailand’s royal family on social media.
“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,” they stressed.
“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 for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly.”