103 Thais face jail for royal insult

IN the year since making an unprecedented, taboo-breaking speech openly calling for discussion on the role of Thailand’s powerful king, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa (pic) has spent months in jail, charged with the crime of defaming the monarchy.

He’s one of 103 people from Thailand’s youth-led anti-government protests now charged with insulting or threatening King Maha Vajiralongkorn or his immediate family, a crime punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Hundreds more face other criminal charges.

Arnon, 36, said he has no regrets and vowed the prosecutions won’t crush the anti-government movement, which in recent weeks has been building again.

“I think it has been worthwhile. Society can now move forward and people can talk about the monarchy,” Arnon told Reuters in an interview while awaiting trial. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The king has traditionally been portrayed as above reproach in conservative Thai culture, and any criticism of the monarch – whom some have viewed as semi-divine – is taboo as well as illegal.

Arnon, however, said talking openly about the monarchy is necessary in the push for democratic reform and the ouster of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who first came to power in a 2014 coup and has long associated himself with loyalty to the king.

Prominent leader Parit Chiwarak – better known as “Penguin” – holds the record of some 20 charges, while at least eight other protesters – all under 18 – are also facing charges.

If found guilty, they face sentences of three to 15 years in jail per charge.

“It is a severe law. Punishment (for royal defamation) could be made, but it has to be reasonable,” lawyer Krisadang Nutcharut, who represents the protesters, told AFP.

Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri on Monday defended the cases against protesters.

“Sometimes the protests were not peaceful... when there is violence the police must maintain peace,” Anucha said.

The anti-government movement was already building last year when Arnon’s late-night speech at an Aug. 3 Harry Potter-themed protest helped electrify it.

Since last year, 695 protesters have been charged with crimes including sedition and causing unrest. Among those, 103 are charged with lese majeste, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Analyst Titipol Phakdeewanich said Thailand’s military-royalist establishment has for decades used royal insult laws to silence critics.

“The government is using its old legal tactic, which has been partially effective in preventing more people from coming out publicly to talk about the monarchy,” said Titipol, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University.

“But there are some people who do not care,” he said.

Arnon, an adviser to the youth movement, faces 12 separate lese majeste cases and spent 113 days imprisoned before being released on bail in June.

Deputy police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen denied cases against protesters are politically motivated.

The protests slowed earlier this year after key leaders were jailed and a severe outbreak of Covid-19 drove many inside.

But in recent weeks, demonstrations have again been building.

This time, it’s not only youth protesters. In late June, some of the government’s former allies took to the streets demanding Prayuth’s resignation over his handling of the worst Covid-19 outbreak to date.

Arnon said the youth movement will continue its fight. — Agencies

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