On Wednesday,the news broke that Thai authorities were lodging a lese-majeste complaint against the prominent opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
The charge comes amid an alarming uptick in cases of royal defamation in Thailand, as the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha seeks to quash a youthful protest campaign that has broken a longstanding taboo by criticizing the Thai monarchy.
Just this week, the Bangkok Criminal Court sentenced Anchan Preelert, a 64-year-old former civil servant, to 43-and-a-half years in prison for posting audio clips on social media in 2014 and 2015 that were deemed critical of the royal family.
The lese-majeste complaint against Thanathorn relates to criticisms that he made recently about the Thai government’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement program. In addition to criticizing it on substantive grounds, he alleged that there had been favoritism in the awarding of a vaccine production contract to Siam Bioscience, a private company owned by Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn.
“Why chose Siam Bioscience as the vaccine producer?” Thanathorn asked in a Facebook livestream last week. “Or was [Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha] just currying favor with somebody?” The deal also involves Thailand’s SCG business conglomerate, of which the king is the main shareholder.
According to the deal with Siam Bioscience, which was signed in October, the firm will this year produce 200 million doses of the vaccine developed by Oxford University and the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, of which 26 million are allocated for Thailand, a nation of roughly 70 million people. Authorities claim that Thanathorn’s criticisms were based on false or distorted information, but have not specified exactly what was incorrect.
Thanathorn, a billionaire auto parts scion, was the co-founder and leader of Future Forward, a political party that made a strong showing in national elections in March 2019, just a year after it was formed. Future Forward had a liberal platform that focused heavily on reducing the power of the military in Thai politics. (At the time of the party’s founding, Thailand was in the midst of a five-year spell of direct military rule.) In February 2020, Future Forward was disbanded on a flimsy technicality, and Thanathorn was banned from politics for 10 years.
The charge is part of a broader attempt to suppress a protest movement that arose last year, and has seen unprecedented public criticism of the Royal Palace, in addition to gleeful online mockery of King Vajiralongkorn. One of the main spurs to the emergence of the protest movement was the banning of Future Forward, which had attracted strong support from Thailand’s youth.
In the early stages of the protests, the authorities shied away from employing the country’s harsh lese-majeste law, which carries prison terms of up to 15 years for criticisms of the monarchy. But since November, the police have charged more than 40 people with lese-majeste, including key student protest leaders. The government also appears to have activated a backlog of lese-majeste cases that have been put on hold for the past few years, including the aforementioned case of Anchan Preelert.
If Thanathorn’s accusations highlight the economic ubiquity of Thailand’s monarchy (as well as its massive wealth), the government’s response highlights the fact that it exists above any degree of popular accountability – and offers a good argument for which it should be brought under more direct constitutional control. Thanathorn made exactly that point at a press conference yesterday, when he said the charges against him were politically motivated, and showed why the country had a need to discuss reform of the monarchy.
“When we are questioning the fact that the Thai public would receive low vaccination coverage and receive it late, or whether or not the government has given preferential treatment to a certain private company, this is what I got back. This is what I got,” he said.
As I argued earlier this week, the charge against Thanathorn, who had previously been relatively cautious about criticizing the monarchy, shows that Thailand’s ruling establishment is meeting calls for reform with increasingly draconian crackdowns. The challenge for the authorities, however, is that even if they succeed in silencing public discussion for a time, public concerns about government and royal accountability will remain, ensuring that Thailand’s perpetual political crisis continues on.