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Lese majeste remained the Thai state’s mailed fist in 2017

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Sulak Sivaraksa arrives for a court hearing where Thailand's military prosecutor will decide whether to proceed with a lese majeste case against him, in Bangkok, Thailand 17 January 17 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva).

In Brief

The Thai dictatorship has methodically entrenched itself in the nearly four years since the 22 May 2014 coup ended Thailand’s tenuous democracy.

The expression of dissent remains forbidden and people face prosecution for protests and demonstrations that involve five or more persons. Any and all criticism of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) is cast as sedition and is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment.


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Those who dissent but have not done so in violation of the law are visited by the authorities at home. This even applies to those who the junta believes might dissent. Such individuals may also be summoned for so-called ‘attitude adjustment’, which is more accurately described as intimidation and harassment.

Public seminars are routinely shut down if the topics are deemed ‘too sensitive’, and state security officers faithfully attend those seminars that are permitted to take place. The officers’ attention to Candy Crush and other mobile phone games rather than to the speakers belies the fact that their presence is meant as a threat.

The most potent tool in upholding the status quo of the dictatorship is the most feared provision of the Criminal Code: Article 112, which stipulates a punishment of 3–15 years’ imprisonment per count of lese majeste. Thailand calls itself a ‘constitutional monarchy’, but the precise relationship between the monarchy (or the monarch himself) and the government remains murky. Regardless of the exact distribution of power, what is clear is the use of Article 112 by those who hold power to spread fear and generate compliance from both ordinary citizens and activists.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 138 people were charged with lese majeste during the first three years of rule by the NCPO. Many of those charged chose to plead guilty, as innocent verdicts are rare and confessions result in an automatic halving of one’s sentence and increase one’s eligibility for a royal pardon.

The courts have meted out record sentences during the reign of the NCPO. Two notable cases from 2016 are the 30-year sentence given to Pongsak and 28-year sentence given to Sasiwimol (both of whom are Thai citizens). They were accused of making Facebook posts deemed to constitute lese majeste.

The death of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the ascent of King Maha Vajiralongkorn has not yet produced a noticeable change in Article 112 prosecutions, which remain arbitrary and designed to intimidate. Law graduate and long-time activist Jatupat ‘Pai’ Boonpattararaksa was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in August 2017 for sharing a BBC Thai article on Facebook detailing Vajiralongkorn’s biography. Over 2600 other people shared the same article but they were not indicted, let alone prosecuted and sentenced to prison.

Why Pai? Was it his dedicated activist work with villagers in the country’s northeast? Was it his activism with students nationwide for environmental rights, human rights and a decent livelihood? Could it have been the many recognitions he has received for his work against the dictatorship (including the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights)? Or was it just a personal vendetta by the military officer who brought the case against him?

Another case stands out. On 29 April 2017, activist and human rights lawyer Prawais Praphanukul was taken from his home by soldiers. A few days later, he was accused of 10 counts of lese majeste and three counts of sedition for a series of Facebook posts deemed to threaten the monarchy and the state. If convicted and sentenced to the maximum punishment, he could face 171 years’ imprisonment. Prawais is 57, so even a much shorter sentence will amount to a life sentence.

Despite facing a lifetime in prison, Prawais has taken a stance against the injustice of his prosecution and in so doing, he has challenged the status quo of the dictatorship and its regime. He has not pled guilty and hoped for a pardon, nor has he even pled innocent. He has instead refused to participate in the criminal prosecution against him. He will not sign documents, appoint a lawyer or present witnesses.

In a series of written declarations to the court, Prawais has explained that he will not participate because the court is too close to the institution of the monarchy to be independent in the adjudication of lese majeste cases. The court has not yet responded to his statements but is likely to be flummoxed by them. There is very little history of dissident declarations to the Criminal Court in Thailand and there is even less with respect to lese majeste cases in which the fear of harsh punishment has aided in generating compliance.

Prawais Praphanukul’s declarations are unlikely to result in a sea change to how the Criminal Court adjudicates lese majeste cases or to how many people are indicted and under what conditions. His courage to take a peaceful stance against injustice — likely at great personal cost — offers a slight ray of hope for democracy amid the otherwise bleak landscape of dictatorship in Thailand.

Tyrell Haberkorn is Associate Professor of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.



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