ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

With Severe Sentence, Thailand Deepens Its War on Critics of the Monarchy

Thailand wields a controversial law in its attempt to stamp out a campaign of student-led protests.

With Severe Sentence, Thailand Deepens Its War on Critics of the Monarchy

A poster of King Vajiralongkorn in Chiang Khong, northern Thailand.

Credit: Sebastian Strangio

As I mentioned briefly in an article yesterday, a Thai court yesterday sentenced a woman to for criticizing the monarchy – the most severe sentence ever handed down under Thailand’s controversial lese-majeste law.

The Bangkok Criminal Court found Anchan Preelert, a former civil servant, guilty of violating the law on 29 instances, for posting audio clips to Facebook and YouTube with comments deemed critical of the palace. This initially added up to a term of 87 years, but the sentence was halved after the defendant admitted her “guilt.”

the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, the woman sentenced was in her mid-60s, meaning that she will likely die in prison for doing what in most nations is an entirely innocuous activity: expressing her opinion online. Her sentence exceeded by some way the 35-year sentence handed down to a man by a military court in 2017, for social media posts deemed defamatory to the monarchy.

Both the conviction and the sentence were swiftly excoriated by human rights groups. “Today’s court verdict is shocking and sends a spine-chilling signal that not only criticisms of the monarchy won’t be tolerated, but they will also be severely punished,” , a senior researcher for the group Human Rights Watch.

The sentence comes amid an ongoing protest movement that has seen unprecedented public criticism of the Royal Palace and mockery of its current inhabitant-in-chief, King Vajiralongkorn. In its initial stages, the government shied away from using the lese-majeste law to pursue protest leaders, perhaps heeding Vajiralongkorn’s wish, expressed shortly after he took the throne in 2016, that the government the use of the controversial law.

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But that changed in November, at the height of the protests, when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha that “all laws” would be used to pursue protest leaders breaking the law. Since then, the police have charged more than 40 people with lese-majeste, including key student protest leaders, a popular actress, and three minors.

Some of the pretexts have been laughably thin. In the case of one group of student activists, the charges were imposed after they at a Bangkok mall while dressed in crop-tops, a by King Vajiralongkorn. Today, royal defamation charges were also against the opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, whose popular Future Forward party was disbanded on a flimsy pretext in February 2020.

Thailand’s lese-majeste law – known widely as Article 112 – has been in place since the early 20th century, but only began being implemented energetically in the 1970s, when the Thai ruling establishment faced serious challenges from student unrest and a China-backed rural communist insurgency.

that the case suggested that in addition to filing new lese-majeste cases against protest leaders, the authorities “seem to have been ordered to clear a backlog of historical cases, which were put in limbo after the king instructed the law not to be used anymore.”

Buchanan also highlighted the case involving a 45-year-old manual laborer named Mr. Issaret, which he described as possibly the first in this “new wave” of lese-majeste cases. Issaret was arrested in September last year on charges dating back to 2016, when he speculated in a Facebook post about a possible succession struggle following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej that October.

All this suggests that far from showing signs of flexibility or willingness to compromise, Thailand’s ruling establishment is doubling down on its war against those demanding change.