In an unmarked building in a back Bangkok alleyway, a group of lawyers and researchers prepares defense strategies for suspects accused of defaming Thailand’s royal family – a crime punishable by three to 15 years in prison under local law.
Established days after the military usurped power in a May 2014 coup, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) is now on the precarious front lines of challenging the legality of the ruling royalist junta’s clampdown, including charges leveled and abuses committed in the name of protecting the crown.
TLHR now represents 27 suspects accused of lese majeste, approximately half the number of cases lodged since coup-maker Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha took power. His regime and its ultra-royalist backers have ramped up anti-royal charges ahead of an uncertain royal succession, a wave of repression many fear will extend beyond the crowning of the next king. While accusations have generally targeted anti-royal sentiment, including over social media, they are also being leveled to stifle anti-junta dissent and expose alleged corrupt practices among aides and officials in heir apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s camp.
TLHR and others have protested the junta’s use of military courts to try anti-royal cases against civilians, claiming the closed door trials lack independence and transparency. Of the dozen lese majeste cases decided since the coup in which TLHR lawyers have provided pro bono legal defense, all have resulted in guilty convictions. Because lese majeste defendants seldom, if ever, win by challenging the content of charges – which often are not repeated in court as doing so could be considered a crime – TLHR advises its clients to contest the integrity or credibility of the evidence against them.
Often retained through prisoner-to-prisoner referrals, TLHR is defending some of the most sensitive pending cases. That includes widely criticized charges filed last month against factory worker Thanakorn Sripaiboon for casting alleged aspersions at King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s dog, Thongdaeng, over social media. Thanakorn also faces potential sedition charges for disseminating on-line allegations of corruption in the military’s construction of statues of past kings at Rajabhakti Park. A TLHR lawyer who requested anonymity claims Thanakorn has been beaten with water bottles and held in chains while in military custody.
The Diplomat could not independently confirm the claims of abuse; Prayuth’s government has denied all torture allegations, including the mysterious deaths in custody of three lese majeste suspects held for claiming association with Vajiralongkorn for wrongful personal gain. TLHR documented 18 cases of torture since the coup in a September submission in collaboration with the International Commission of Jurists to the United Nations. “Lawyers in Thailand don’t want to be involved in these cases,” said a TLHR attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They fear it will affect on their [other] jobs.”
Prison authorities make defending lese majeste suspects a tough task by tilting the legal playing field against them while in pre-trial detention. TLHR lawyers are only allowed to speak to their clients by telephone through thick glass barriers, though confidentiality is compromised because their conversations are known to be recorded. While discussing sensitive points, the TLHR lawyer says she puts down the phone and speaks through the glass to prevent prison authorities from eavesdropping. “Sometimes I get harassed by prison officers,” the lawyer says. “They always say ‘why do you dare to represent [lese majeste] cases?’”
TLHR says it works strictly by the law and steers clear of politics. That professed neutrality, however, has not entirely shielded its members from official harassment, particularly when its research and statements counter the junta’s rule-by-law narrative. Last June, police ordered the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok to cancel an event where TLHR was scheduled to present research on the junta’s alleged abuses. “They said our findings could be a threat to national security,” said a TLHR researcher, recounting the shutdown. “We think people have a right to know… If we don’t speak out, no-one else will.”
As lese majeste cases become more politicized, TLHR recognizes its risks are rising. TLHR’s circular questioning the circumstances and legality of lese majeste accusations made against nine suspects for alleged plans to violently disrupt the Vajiralongkorn-organized ‘Bike for Dad’ event on December 11 is a case in point. The charges claimed the suspects, including a senior police official, also aimed to attack two “politically prominent” figures, presumed to mean Prayuth and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. TLHR’s statement claimed one suspect was tortured into confession, while others were denied access to lawyers.
Media paid the alleged plot short shrift, with many commentators speculating it was manufactured to distract attention from the Rajabhakti Park scandal. It also raised questions about whether the military and its royalist backers’ loose use of anti-royal charges are helping or hurting the monarchy at a delicate juncture for the institution’s future. “They truly believe what they are doing is not wrong, is not a violation of rights,” said a TLHR lawyer, requesting anonymity. “They have this image of an ideal nation in their heads and they will do anything to achieve it, regardless of human rights and their image in the eyes of the world.”
TLHR believes its members have not been more overtly targeted due to their linkages with prominent international organizations, including the European Union and Open Society Institute, among others. But as royalist anxieties and passions mount ahead of a delicate succession – witnessed in the recent lese majeste accusations leveled against the U.S.’s top envoy to Thailand for a banal statement about the law’s application – TLHR’s lawyers wonder how much longer they can safely defend those accused of anti-royal crimes without likewise being considered enemies of the military-run state.