Their work overshadowed by a raging second-wave coronavirus outbreak, Thailand authorities are rounding up young, pro-democracy activists and slapping them with lese majeste charges that could seen teenagers imprisoned for decades.
The military-backed government has ignored the pleas of human-rights networks, charging another three young Thais with royal defamation, a crime punishable with up to 15 years in prison per charge under Article 112 of the Criminal Code.
The latest cases mean that as many as 40 people, including a 16-and 17-year-old high school students, are facing lese majeste charges that could land them in prison until they are middle-aged.
Most of the accused Thais are in their 20s and 30s who belong to the “Khana Ratsadon” (People’s Party) grassroots youth movement whose members would like to see sweeping political reforms in Thailand, including new constitutional limits on the monarchy.
Parit Chiwarak, 23, a leader of the movement who is a political science major at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, is facing 12 counts for having called for reform of the monarchy at various student-led mass protests last year. If convicted on all counts, Parit could be jailed for 180 years.
Three other prominent leaders of the youth movement are facing eight, six and five counts respectively.
Numerous members of the pro-democracy movement are also facing charges of sedition and other offenses under Thailand’s harsh Computer Crime Act.
These charges, rights advocates say, are further violations of activists’ fundamental rights, including the freedoms of conscience, assembly and speech.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed serious concerns last month about the use of the draconian lese majeste law to stamp out political dissent.
Since then, Thai authorities have charged another juvenile, a 17-year-old, with the same offense, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
“We are deeply troubled by the move by Thai authorities to charge at least 35 protesters in recent weeks, including a 16-year old student protester, under Article 112 — the lese majeste provision of Thailand’s criminal code,” the UN body said in a statement.
“It is extremely disappointing that after a period of two years without any cases, we are suddenly witnessing a large number of cases, and — shockingly — now also against a minor,” Ravina Shamdasani, the UN rights body’s spokeswoman, said after a 16-year-old was charged with lese majeste last month.
“We call on the government of Thailand to stop the repeated use of such serious criminal charges against individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Ravina said.
However, such appeals appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Senior Thai officials have just announced that they are planning to file further charges against nine unidentified people for posting comments deemed to have been defamatory towards the monarchy on more than two dozen social media accounts.
“We have identified nine individuals who are owners of these accounts. They are not new faces and have been charged with similar offenses many times before,” Buddhipongse Punnakanta, minister of digital economy and society, told a news conference on Jan. 6.
The continued clampdown is a sign that Thai authorities want to forestall a repeat of last year when numerous mass rallies took place in Bangkok and elsewhere, with tens of thousands of young Thais taking to the streets and social media to call for political reforms.
The protesters called for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who seized power in a coup in 2014, and demanded wide-ranging political reforms.
Many of the protesters also called for limits on the powers and privileges of the royal family, whose members are officially venerated in Thailand. These demands shocked many royalists as any criticism of any member of the royal family, including their pets, has long been taboo.
In response, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government has been stepping up the use of the lese majeste law to silence all such dissent once and for all. “Even the slightest critical reference to the monarchy is now punishable,” Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Voice of America.
Some Thai legal experts say that Article 112 is now being wielded in a highly repressive manner. “This law is being used all over the place,” said Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a legal scholar at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “Anyone can file [a charge of lese majeste against anyone], and the Supreme Court has never once set a guideline as to how this law should be used. It’s still very much the Wild West.”
However, the wanton use of the draconian law may yet backfire as many young activists have stressed that they are not afraid of running afoul of Article 112.
“People do not fear 112 anymore,” said Attapon Buapat, a protest leader who is facing a lese majeste charge. “Everyone fighting this battle has been prepared for our freedoms and rights to be violated one day. We have stepped beyond that fear for quite some time now. Whatever will be, will be.”
The original version this story was published in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.