As Protests Grow, Thailand’s Authorities Dust Off Royal Defamation Law

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As Protests Grow, Thailand’s Authorities Dust Off Royal Defamation Law

This revival of lese-majeste law marks an escalation in the authorities’ campaign against rising pro-democracy protests.

As Protests Grow, Thailand’s Authorities Dust Off Royal Defamation Law

Pro-democracy activist and human rights lawyer Arnon Nampha talks to pro-democracy protesters during a protest at the Sanam Luang field in Bangkok on September 19, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn

Authorities in Thailand have opened a new front in their battle with a rising anti-government movement, summoning 12 protest leaders to face charges of insulting the country’s monarchy.

The dozen have reportedly been charged under Article 112 of the Thai Penal Code, which criminalizes anything defaming, insulting, or threatening the king and the royal family. Those found guilty under this archaic lese-majeste provision face prison terms of up to 15 years.

The move marks an escalation in the face of street rallies by pro-democracy protesters, a day before a planned protest against the immense wealth and profligate spending of King Vajiralongkorn and the royal family.

The student-led protesters have demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and the drafting of a genuinely democratic constitution. The movement has also broken ground by extending its reform demand to the monarchy, shattering a political taboo and challenging the mythology that has been spun, cocoon-like, around the palace.

The summonses came five days after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha warned that the government would step up its pressure on protesters after months of large-scale protests.

“It is necessary for the government and security agencies to intensify their actions by enforcing all laws and all articles to take action against demonstrators who break the law and show no respect for the rights of other people,” said Prayut, who as army chief led the country’s last coup d’etat in 2014.

In a post on Twitter, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, one of the 12 charged protest leaders, responded to the summons by writing, “I am not afraid anymore. The ceiling (of our demands) is destroyed. Nobody can stop us now.”

As noted by Reuters, this is the first time that Article 112 charges have been brought for more than two years, after King Maha Vajiralongkorn informed the government that he did not wish to see the law used. This was likely because of concerns that the capricious and highly politicized use of the law over the previous decade was reflecting badly on the monarchy.

The charges were announced a day before protesters planned to march to the office that manages the royal fortune to demand that the king give up personal control of the monarchy’s massive assets. The FreeYouth protest group said in a Twitter post that demonstrators were marching to “reclaim the property that is meant to belong to the people.”

Police said that no protesters would be allowed within 150 meters of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB). By the morning of November 25, police had dragged shipping containers and concrete barricades across roads to bloc protesters’ way to the CPB office.

Among protesters’ demands is the reversal of changes that in 2018 that gave King Vajiralongkorn personal control over the CPB’s assets. The full value of the CPB’s wealth is unclear, but as the journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall details in this extensive Twitter thread, a sensible estimate puts it at anywhere between $49 to $66 billion.

The deployment of the lese-majeste law is unlikely to staunch the current surge in anti-government and anti-monarchy sentiment; indeed, it is more likely to inflame the hostility of protesters, and their determination to challenge Thailand’s dense concentrations of power and wealth.

Last week, more than 50 people were hurt when police used water cannon and tear gas against thousands of protesters outside the Thai parliament, the most violent day of more than four months of demonstrations. The government’s fallback on Article 112 heralds tenser confrontations to come.