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After Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn took the throne in 2016, he instructed the government to stop using a controversial law criminalizing royal insults that had often forced those charged to flee overseas.

Yet after months of protests targeting him personally and calling for a reduction in the monarchy’s powers, authorities are again ramping up use of the law. Since late November, some 55 activists who participated in the demonstrations are facing royal defamation lawsuits, according to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

The fresh charges appear to be a tactical shift in a bid to silence the key leaders of the protests, which have broken long-held taboos and started a public discussion about the monarchy — particularly among Thailand’s younger generations. Although the demonstrations have become less frequent in recent weeks as virus cases have surged, analysts warn that use of the law could backfire in the long run.

“If the authorities ran through Twitter and Facebook, they could find thousands of people who could be charged,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Part of why the government hasn’t arrested all of the youth protesters is that someone somewhere in the state apparatus realizes that that will bring a really loud outcry.”

Thailand’s lese majeste law is one of the harshest in the world, mandating as many as 15 years in prison for each instance of defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent. On Jan. 19, a Thai court sentenced a former civil servant arrested in 2015 to 43-and-a-half years in prison for sharing clips on social media of an online talk show that allegedly defamed the monarchy. Human-rights groups called it Thailand’s harshest lese majeste sentence ever.

The government on Jan. 20 filed a lese majeste complaint against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a former prime minister candidate who is one of Thailand’s most high-profile government critics. Authorities said a 30-minute Facebook broadcast in which he questioned the involvement of palace-backed Siam Bioscience Ltd. in the local production of a coronavirus vaccine contained nearly a dozen instances that may have violated the monarchy.

The Bureau of the Royal Household has said that it doesn’t give comments to the press. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who has rejected calls from protesters to resign, said on Jan. 25 that the government hasn’t focused on using any particular statute to target anyone and is merely enforcing existing laws, which also include provisions against sedition and computer crimes.

“If you’re wrong, you’ll get prosecuted,” Prayuth told reporters after being asked about the use of royal defamation law. “If you don’t want to get prosecuted, you shouldn’t break the law. Shouldn’t everyone follow the law? I don’t know if they’re right or wrong, it’s up to the justice system. If you didn’t do anything wrong, you can fight it in court.”

Of the protesters charged, student activist Parit Chiwarak is facing the most lawsuits with 15 cases as of Jan. 20, according to data from the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Last year, after he received two police summons for lese majeste, he said he’s “not worried about himself and only worried that the country would fall apart because of the use of this law.”

Demonstrators walk past a portrait of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn during a protest demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha in Bangkok in July last year. | REUTERS
Demonstrators walk past a portrait of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn during a protest demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha in Bangkok in July last year. | REUTERS

Thanathorn, who is waiting to see if prosecutors will file lese majeste charges, said the cases were a “distraction” designed to suck time and money away from the protest movement. He vowed to continue pressuring the government, calling the multitude of cases against him “politically motivated.”

“For 40 years of my life, I’ve never been charged — I’ve never been prosecuted, not even one case,” he told reporters on Jan. 21. “But since I started politics, there are countless cases against me.” He added: “It’s because we challenge the status quo, we challenge the establishment.”

Prior to the resurgence of lese majeste cases, authorities had largely used sedition and computer crimes statutes to target protesters. But the royal defamation law is a step up: Judges often deny bail in these cases, which also carry a potentially greater deterrent effect.

The heavy jail sentence against the former civil servant serves as a warning to other government officials to remain loyal to the king and ensure others don’t “mainstream critical dissent against the monarchy,” according to Christopher Ankersen, associate professor at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. It also allows the monarch to show benevolence by issuing a pardon at some point, he added.

“Lese majeste is the ultimate ‘this person is not a good person’ type of a charge,” Ankerson said. “If the students continue to push for reform of the monarchy, we’re going to see more and more pushback, and we’re starting to see that being ramped up by the establishment.”

So far the protesters have continued to rally. In January, they defied COVID-19 restrictions by holding events throughout Bangkok in which they hung banners questioning the vaccine plan, demanded an end to lese majeste and submitted a letter to the Finance Ministry to divert funds from the military and palace toward cash transfers and vaccine programs.

The lese majeste law “is a short-term solution for what is a long-term problem — and that is that people won’t be silenced,” said Tamara Loos, a professor of history and Thai studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “It might quiet down because of the intense repression being used against them, but it’s not the end of this.”

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