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Desperate Times, Desperate Measures for Young Thais Facing Decades in Prison

Accused of insulting Thailand's royal family, a young activist cut his own arm during his trial

A man holds a sign calling for the abolition of Thailand's controversial lese majeste law during a protest in Bangkok. (Photo: UCA News)
A man holds a sign calling for the abolition of Thailand's controversial lese majeste law during a protest in Bangkok. (Photo: UCA News)

Facing trial for allegedly insulting Thailand’s monarchy, Joseph Kritpol decided he would take a stand, not only for him, but other young Thais facing decades in prison under the country’s draconian lese majeste law.

So the young man slashed his arm with a pocket knife, demanding as the blood flowed that all “political prisoners” be released from jail ahead of their trials.

Lese majeste trials are conducted in private in Thailand, but representatives of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group who witnessed the incident reported it on social media.

Kritpol’s wound reportedly was superficial, but his act of self-mutilation cut deep symbolically.

Over the past year, more than 150 Thais, predominantly young pro-democracy activists, have been charged with lese majeste, also known as royal defamation, and some of the accused have resorted to desperate measures to protest what they see as an unjust law that penalizes freedom of speech.

Earlier this year, Parit Chiwarak, a 23-year-old university student turned activist, went on a prolonged hunger strike inside prison before being released on bail.

Parit, who is now back in prison where he recently contracted Covid-19, is facing 20 different lese majeste charges over various statements he made during student-led street rallies. If found guilty of all charges, the young political activist could be sentenced to a total of 300 years in prison.

Kritpol himself is being tried for having delivered a speech during a protest in front of the German embassy in Bangkok last year where he read out a letter in English with references to HM King Vajiralongkorn, who reportedly spent most of his time in the European country in previous years.

Many young Thais have been clamoring for political change in a country ruled by a military-allied government, whose head, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, seized power in a coup in 2014, and they want to see the country’s notorious lese majeste law, codified as Article 112 of the Criminal Code, scrapped.

During street demonstrations and on social media, they have been decrying the law as unjust and antiquated. They have also been openly criticizing Thailand’s royal family and the institution of the monarchy, which is officially portrayed as a key pillar of the nation.

In so doing, young activists have broken a taboo and angered royalists, some of whom have been trawling through social media accounts for content that could be deemed defamatory so that the commenters could be reported to the police and charged with lese majeste.

“These students don’t stand for Thais. Thai people love the royal family and all [previous] royals for everything they have done for the country for centuries,” a royalist travel agent in Bangkok who supports the current government told a UCA News reporter.

Anyone who criticizes the monarchy or calls for the abolition of the lese majeste law must be penalized, he added.

However, student activists are not alone in calling for Article 112 to be repealed. Numerous rights groups and experts have been demanding that Thai authorities stop charging citizens with royal defamation in a bid to silence dissenting voices.

“We call on the authorities to revise and repeal the lese majeste laws, to drop charges against all those who are currently facing criminal prosecution and release those who have been imprisoned under for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly,” rights experts affiliated with the United Nations said in a statement earlier this year.

Such calls have fallen on deaf ears, however. In recent weeks police have charged several more young Thais, including minors, with royal defamation over social media posts and statements they made during street protests.

On Oct. 7, police officers arrested Benja Apan, a 22-year-old leader of a group of university students whose members have been calling for a reform of Thailand’s political system, including the imposition of new constitutional limits on the monarchy.

Benja was denied bail and is being held in Bangkok’s Central Women’s Correctional Institution. The student activist is facing a charge of lese majeste over a speech she gave during a street rally in August in which she criticized the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and called for reform of the monarchy.

In a statement issued on Oct. 12, the International Federation for Human Rights condemned Thai authorities for arresting the young activist, who is now one of five young Thais in prison awaiting their trials on lese majeste charges.

The “arbitrary detention and judicial harassment” of the five activists “seem to be only aimed at punishing them for their legitimate human rights activities and the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly,” the group said.

The FIDH called on Thai authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release the five human rights defenders and to put an end to the judicial harassment against them and all other human rights defenders in the country.”

More than 100 other young Thais, out on bail, are set to be tried for royal defamation. The same fate may yet befall many others.

“When you speak the truth, you are harassed, persecuted and jailed,” a university student who frequently attends anti-establishment rallies told UCA News.

“Under this regime, there is no hope for young people like us in Thailand,” she added.

The original version of this story appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.