In mid September, a 25-year-old trans person, Jatuporn “New” Sae-Ung, was sentenced to three years in prison for wearing a Thai traditional dress and performing a mock fashion walk at a political protest in Bangkok back in October 2020. She was charged with royal defamation, or the lèse-majesté law, as the court deemed her action a parody of the country’s queen. Sadly, her case is not an outlier when it comes to Thai authorities’ war against political dissent.
Lèse-majesté, or royal defamation, can still be found in many constitutional monarchies and is supposed to protect the reputation of the head of state. But what sets Thailand apart is the severity of the penalty under the law—also known as Article 112 of the Criminal Code.
Thailand has the harshest royal defamation laws in the world, which punishes offenders with three to 15 years imprisonment. And it has been actively enforced since its inception in 1908 in the Criminal Code.
Since the military coup in 2006, lèse-majesté has become a perfect political tool for the authorities, as well as ultraconservative citizens, to silence those who criticise the government, the role of the monarchy, or even this law itself. During the post 2014 coup until early 2018, at least 169 people were charged under the lèse-majesté law.
But after receiving heavy international condemnation, the government ceased prosecuting individuals under lèse-majesté, from 2018-2020, instead relying on sedition and cyber crime laws.
However, when the pro-democracy protests led by students and youth started calling for political reforms in July 2020 – one of which was reform of the monarchy – the government reinforced the law in November 2020.
Cosplaying as royal figures, putting stickers on royal portraits, making public polls about the impact of royal motorcade, commenting on Facebook posts, can all be considered a crime.
To make things worse, in November 2021, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that calls for reform of the monarchy and the abolition of the lèse-majesté law were an attempt to overthrow the democratic regime with the King as Head of State.
Since 2020, at least 215 individuals – including 17 minors – in 234 cases, have been charged and/or prosecuted with the law.
Jatuporn’s was the tenth case in which the court handed down a guilty verdict on the basis of Article 112 since 2020.
Problems with the law
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, founded in 2014, has been providing pro bono legal aid to individuals prosecuted for their political expression. Our clients, comprising about 1,700 citizens during 2020-2021 alone, have been charged and/or prosecuted under numerous offences, such as royal defamation, sedition, and other ‘crimes.’
As for the lèse-majesté offence, our documentation and database of all 234 cases show that the court’s judgments establish dangerous precedents for the country’s freedom of speech and assembly amidst heavy calls from the people demanding historic political changes. So far, there were just three lèse-majesté cases where courts acquitted the defendants.
There are three main problems with the lèse-majesté law.
First, it allows anyone to file criminal complaints against each other, enabling it to become a political tool to further polarise the country. We not only see lèse-majesté complaints made by the police and authorities, but also by at least a hundred ultraconservative citizens against political dissidents. This results in a continuous flux of new charges and expedited prosecutions by the public prosecutors.
Of all the lèse-majesté cases submitted to the prosecutors by the police, there was not a single case in which the prosecutors did not issue an indictment.
Second, the law is subjected to dangerously vague interpretation by the police, public prosecutors, and judges. Even though the law clearly stipulates an offence only for those who “defame, insult, or threaten the king, the queen, the heir-apparent, or the regent,” speeches and acts that were conducted without such intention were still convicted of lèse-majesté.
Third, the punishment of the law is grossly disproportionate.
This is exemplified by comparing it with similar laws in other countries with a monarch as head of state. In Denmark, the punishment for defamation of the king is up to four months in prison, though the law has never been enforced. In the Netherlands, the penalties are up to five years in prison and/or fine. In the UK, the last defamation law was enforced in 1715. Japan, Norway, and Sweden do not have such laws to protect their monarchs.
In any case, regardless of the intention of the speeches, no one should be criminalised and put in jail for their expression, online or offline.
Criminalised for speech
As the youth-led movement gained momentum, Jatuporn first participated in the protests in her native Buriram province in northeastern Thailand before joining the demonstrations in Bangkok.
On 29 October 2020, a political protest organised in the form of a street fashion show, understandably referring to the fashion brand of Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya, aimed to send out a wider political message. The message questioned the public budget, which is allocated to the monarchy even as the country’s economic crisis worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.
Jatuporn rented a traditional Thai dress and joined the show as a mere participant. However, the public prosecutor submitted an accusation to the court, stating that Jatuporn’s action constituted “offensive, harassing, insulting, defaming or threatening acts against the King and the Queen, resulting in King Rama X and the Queen being humiliated, insulted, hated, and disrespected.” But this claim was supported only by circumstantial evidence.
Such a fate is shared by many others, including the 52-year-old Sombat Thongyoi. A former red shirt security guard, he was recently sentenced to 6 years in prison for posting the phrase “very brave, very good, thank you” on his Facebook account along with a few other posts. The phrase referred to the King’s speech during his public visit to the royalist audience in October 2020. Sombat has been in prison for five months and still remains in detention.
Two activists were arrested in early 2021, and charged with selling calendars with images of yellow rubber ducks with phrases resembling those often used by the royal family. They were later indicted by the public prosecutor in 2022 as their act was understood to be an insult to the King.
Many people charged with lèse-majesté face prolonged pre-trial detention, with bail requests repeatedly denied by the police and the courts, citing the “gravity of the crime” and flight risk.
Those who were granted bail have to front as much as $7,934 (300,000 baht) for their temporary freedom. When released, they are forced to refrain from conducting activities that “tarnish the reputation of the monarchy,” and many others. Effectively, the bail conditions serve as a form of out-of-prison detention of critics and deprive the basic rights from the defendants.
In January 2021, the court handed down the record punishment to a former civil servant, Anchan Preelerd. She was sentenced to 87 years in prison on 29 counts of lèse-majesté over audio clips she uploaded and disseminated on social media platforms. Her sentence was reduced to 43 years and six months as she pleaded guilty. Anchan still remains imprisoned at the Central Women’s Correctional Institution in Bangkok.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights emphasises that nobody should be criminalised for exercising their freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Royal defamation should be abolished or amended to be in line with international human rights standards. Criticisms of all public figures, including heads of State, must be allowed and encouraged under democratic principles, and Thai authorities should listen to the young people who are the future generation of the country.
The more the Thai state uses royal defamation to suppress the people’s freedom of speech to maintain ‘reverence,’ the result will be the opposite. Respect and faith of one’s public institution must be earned from the people — not forced.
Sulakshana Lamubol is a Program Manager at Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, an NGO founded in 2014 to provide pro-bono legal aid to those charged and/or prosecuted for their political expression. It also documents human rights violations related to civil and political rights nationwide.