Thailand: king’s critics criminalised
Thai democracy protesters are increasingly being charged with insulting the monarchy, under the country’s ludicrously outdated lèse majesté law. This is the state’s response to the failure of other repressive measures, such as protest restrictions and violence towards protesters, to dampen demands for democracy, which persisted even after the military government disguised itself as a civilian administration in 2019. Protesters challenge taboos about royal deference, questioning the king’s grotesque wealth and his close connections to the ruling party.
By most counts, there are 44 countries in the world that still have a monarch as head of state. This feudal institution has survived into the 21st century by conceding power to democratic institutions, with monarchs taking on largely formal or ceremonial roles – with a handful of exceptions, such as the despotic absolute monarchy of King Mswati III in Eswatini, where the democracy movement battles fierce repression.
Power shifts have in the main come with the recognition that people should be free to criticise their rulers, even when they are hereditary monarchs, and hold them accountable, not least when it comes to their wealth. But Thailand is going the other way, increasingly stamping down on those who criticise the king, Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Thailand has long been notorious for its lèse majesté law – section 112 of the Criminal Code – which makes it illegal to defame, insult or threaten the monarch. Other countries have similar laws but over recent decades have relaxed them. Thailand stands out as the one country that has tightened their application.
A new depth was reached in March, when Narin Kulpongsathron was handed a two-year jail sentence under the lèse majesté law. His crime was to slap a sticker of a satirical website on a portrait of the king during a democracy protest in September 2020. While Narin was released on bail pending an appeal, he faces further charges under the same law.
There was a wider significance to the judgement: it marked the first time someone has been convicted of a crime against the monarchy for such an act during a protest, potentially setting a dangerous new precedent. It signals to the many others facing trials on similar charges that they are likely to join the massed ranks of democracy protesters stuck in Thai jails.
Calling out the world’s richest monarch
The roots of the current democracy movement lie in Thailand’s 2014 military coup. Demands for democracy were not assuaged by the 2019 election, in which military leaders put on civilian suits to stay in power through a voting process riddled with irregularities. Since then, continuing democracy protests have met with intensifying repression.
Democracy protesters have increasingly directed their ire not just at their pseudo-civilian government but at the king. His father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, reigned for over 70 years and was revered by many Thais. But his son is a more divisive figure. Vajiralongkorn has long had a playboy reputation and a colourful personal life. He spends most of his time not in Thailand but in Germany. His royal entourage involves 250 people and 30 poodles.
He’s also said to be the world’s richest monarch: estimates of his personal wealth start at US$30 billion. The king has extensive property and business interests that are embedded in the country’s life, with companies he has a stake in often involved in government contracts, including to produce the COVID-19 vaccine. After becoming king in 2016, Vajiralongkorn moved to further consolidate his wealth by taking direct control of the crown property bureau, something that may have doubled his immense fortune.
Control of such vast wealth by one person is a worthy subject for criticism, not least as Thailand’s economy contracted sharply under the pandemic. But there are more reasons for democracy protesters to take issue with the king. Far from being aloof from everyday politics, as constitutional monarchs are expected to be, Vajiralongkorn stands accused of being too close to the ruling party. When the military rewrote the constitution in 2017, the king intervened to insist on changes in clauses relating to royal power. In 2018, further cementing his military links and asserting his authority, he took direct control of two military units. The king is alternatively absent and interventionist, depending on what suits him.
For its part, the ruling party emphasises its support for what it characterises as traditional Thai values, which include deference towards the monarchy. In the eyes of the democracy campaign, the king, the ruling party and the military are indistinguishable as forces denying their demands for democratic freedoms.
A bad law stretched further
As protests developed in 2020, something new happened: protesters increasingly questioned the monarchy. Taboos were shattered as people began to lampoon the king, satirising his playboy lifestyle and absenteeism. Protesters marched on the royal palace, demanding new limitations on monarchical power, and protested at a royal motorcade when the king made a rare visit home. They marched against royal wealth at the headquarters of the Siam Commercial Bank, in which the king owns around a quarter of the shares.
This new focus of protests provoked a counter-reaction, including from ruling-party supporters. To some extent a generational divide emerged: many protesters are students and other young people, while ardent royalists tend to be older and socially conservative, overlapping with those who support the military and its party.
Something had to give, and unfortunately it turned out to be the government’s previous restraint on applying the lèse majesté law. When restrictions on protest and violence against protesters failed to quell dissent, the government fell back on the law, ending a period of around two years in which it had not prosecuted people for lèse majesté. In November 2020 the law came back with a vengeance, enabled by a constitutional court judgment that ruled that calls for reform of the monarchy harm state security and constitute abuses of rights and freedoms.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a human rights organisation, reports that at least 190 people have so far been charged with lèse majesté, many of them young people, including several aged under 18. The sentences can be long too. A single offence can bring a sentence of up to 15 years, and when people are convicted of multiple offences they get longer still. In January 2021, Anchan Preelerd received the longest lèse majesté sentence to date, of 43 and a half years, after being found guilty of several offences. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has concluded that her detention is arbitrary, a consequence of her peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression.
Now the law is being stretched wider than before, encompassing minor offences. People have been arrested for wearing crop tops – mocking the king’s exercise attire when in Germany – and carrying balloons in the shape of dogs, referencing the royal poodles. Nothing seems too frivolous to attract the law’s attention. Playful acts of satire and symbolic rebellion, part of the routine of how young people express themselves around the world, are criminalised. Lèse majesté is increasingly being used as a tool to suppress the democracy movement when people have managed to avoid being criminalised under other repressive laws.
Even when they are not convicted, people charged with lèse majesté are often kept in detention for long spells and denied access to legal and medical care. Detention takes people away from the pro-democracy movement, aiming to sap its energy. When people are allowed out on bail, it is with strict conditions that make activism impossible. Detention also exposes them to much higher risk of COVID-19 contagion: infection spikes have been linked to jails in which many democracy activists are detained.
Further threats to freedom of association
Beyond the lèse majesté law and the repression of protests, the Thai regime is currently crafting another tool to suppress dissent. In January, the cabinet approved the Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations. This sweeping new law would enable officials to shut down civil society organisations (CSOs) temporarily or permanently for a wide range of undefined offences, including affecting ‘relations between countries’ and ‘causing divisions within society’. The law creates wide leeway to restrict CSOs that criticise the government and monarchy.
It would potentially apply to a broad range of CSOs, including not only domestic CSOs but also the many regional organisations headquartered in Thailand and Thailand-based CSOs working for rights in the even more repressive states of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as well as conflict-torn Myanmar.
The law was opened for a second round of public comments from January to April, a concession made in response to criticism of the proposed law and the inadequacy of the earlier consultation round. CSOs have protested against the law and 1,867 came together in a joint statement to criticise it. Attempts to change it continue.
CSOs already face considerable hostility. In February, an aide to the prime minister said he would seek Amnesty International’s expulsion from Thailand, and the organisation has warned it could be forced to leave. It has come under increasing criticism, including from royalist groups, and in November 2021 the prime minister opened an investigation into it. Among its offences are criticising the application of the lèse majesté law.
The future faces the past
Protests continue, despite the immense risks. Given the youthful nature of the movement, universities have become a growing protest arena. Many students are now boycotting university graduation ceremonies when these are presided over by members of the royal family: most such ceremonies are, and royal family members make money from them. Even at Thailand’s most elite and conservative university, Chulalongkorn University, founded by a king, students are rebelling.
In the eyes of the democracy campaign, the king, the ruling party and the military are indistinguishable as forces denying their demands for democratic freedoms.
Each act of defiance brings backlash. At Chulalongkorn University, the student union head was ousted after scrapping a traditional celebration associated with the monarchy and holding a discussion with democracy supporters and royal critics. Royalists are urging employers not to hire graduates unless they can show proof of having attended their ceremony.
But the many young Thais who are protesting in whatever way they can, and the multitudes stuck in the country’s jails, will keep insisting that they are the future, and the future is democratic. The monarchy, meanwhile, is stuck in the past. The king would be wise to learn the lesson of what happens to monarchies that refuse to change with the times.
Cover photo by REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha via Gallo Images
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Thai government should repeal the lèse majesté law and exercise restraint over its current application.
The international community should support activists charged under the law, including by attending trials, issuing statements and visiting activists in detention.
The Thai government should immediately drop all charges and release anyone detained or sentenced under the lèse majesté law.