BANGKOK – The former official’s crime was sharing audio clips on social media that were viewed as critical of Thailand’s former king. The sentence passed on Tuesday by a criminal court in Bangkok was more than 43 years in prison.
According to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, it has been the longest sentence to date for violating Thailand’s notoriously harsh Law of Majesty, making it a crime to defame high-ranking members of the royal family. The former officer, who the court identified only as Anchan P., was sentenced to 87 years, but her sentence was cut in half for pleading guilty.
“Today’s court ruling is shocking and sends a creepy signal that not only will criticism of the monarchy not be tolerated, but severely punished,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Thailand.
Thailand has seen a surge in libel cases since late last year, after roughly three years of failing to enforce Section 112 of the Criminal Code, which applies to criticizing top royals, according to Thai legal groups. The three-year hiatus came at the behest of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, who, according to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, wanted such prosecutions to end.
But that was before a protest movement arose last year that targeted both the king and the prime minister. Protesters, by the thousands, at street rallies have called for the royal family, one of the richest in the world, to fall within the purview of the Thai constitution.
They have called for a review of the palace’s finances as the king’s lavish lifestyle is in stark contrast to the economic pain caused by the pandemic. And they have campaigned for the removal of Mr Prayuth, a former army general who took power in a 2014 coup and pledged to protect the royal family from unclear threats.
Protesters scribbled graffiti on the streets of Bangkok last fall denouncing King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his wives and loved ones. It was an amazing development in a country where criticism of the monarch was usually limited to whispers and innuendo, padded with a lot of denial.
In the past few weeks, dozens of Thais, including youth and college students, have been accused of violating Section 112. In light of the student-led mass protests that subsided after the coronavirus outbreak in Thailand, human rights groups say the government is using the courts to silence some of the protesters.
“It can be seen that the Thai authorities are using law enforcement as a last resort in response to the youth-led democracy uprising to curb the king’s power and keep him under constitutional rule,” Sunai said. “The Thai authorities are trying to put this spirit back in the bottle with a sledge hammer.”
Even before the Law of Majesty was revived in November, other legal mechanisms, including a computer crime law and a sedition law, were being put in place against those considered top royals to be defamed or insulted. An obscure section of Thailand’s criminal code punishing “an act of violence against the queen’s freedom” with life in prison was first enforced against protesters who yelled at a royal motorcade.
According to Section 112 of the Criminal Code, insulting or defaming the king or his close relatives can be punished with a prison sentence of three to 15 years. Each charge is counted separately, which partly explains why Ms. Anchan’s sentence is so long.
The case against Ms. Anchan, whose full name was withheld by Thai human rights lawyers in her defense, began before authorities stopped using Section 112.
In 2015, the military junta led by then General Prayuth arrested more than a dozen people, including Ms. Anchan, who were accused of being part of an anti-monarchy network. They were accused of using social media to distribute audio and video recordings that were viewed as critical of then-King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the father of the current king who was the longest-ruling monarch in the world when he died in 2016 .
Bhumibol, known as Rama IX, often commuted long sentences to His Majesty. However, it is not clear whether his son, who has tighter grip on the palace’s finances and expanded his military authority, will continue this tradition.
Although some of the people charged with Ms. Anchan were quickly sentenced to years in prison by a military court, her case remained. Ms. Anchan, who worked in Thailand’s finance department for about 30 years, was detained from 2015 to 2018 until she was tried, according to her legal team.
Pawinee Chumsri, an attorney for Ms. Anchan, said she was planning an appeal. But Ms. Pawinee had little hope of an early decline in such cases.
“The government has announced that it will impose the Law on Majesty,” she said. “I think we will see more and more 112 cases and judgments because that is the trend where the government is going.”
Muktita Suhartono contributed to the coverage.