Dispatch

Reform Is Becoming Treason in Thailand

Government courts accuse students of attempting to overthrow the monarchy.

By , a journalist in Thailand.
Thai protesters in front of the German Embassy in Bangkok
Thai protesters make the three-finger salute during a demonstration in front of the German Embassy in Bangkok on Nov. 14. Jack Taylor/AFP via Getty Images

BANGKOK—Two days after Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s private jet landed in Germany last week, reportedly loaded with 30 poodles, the Constitutional Court in northern Bangkok ruled that calls to reform the monarchy amounted to an attempt to overthrow the institutions of the kingdom under Section 113 of the Criminal Code. Penalties include life in prison and death.

The court cannot hand down sentences, but the ruling is a frightening prospect for the protest movement in Bangkok and an endorsement of the government’s authoritarian turn. The subjects of the ruling—Arnon Nampa, Panupong “Mike Rayong” Jadnok, and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul—are already facing centuries of charges among them for reading speeches and leading protests.

“The trio’s acts were unconstitutional and a misuse of rights and freedom in order to abolish the country’s ruling system of democracy with the king as the head of state,” Judge Chiranit Havanond said of the court’s ruling on Nov. 10.

BANGKOK—Two days after Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s private jet landed in Germany last week, reportedly loaded with 30 poodles, the Constitutional Court in northern Bangkok ruled that calls to reform the monarchy amounted to an attempt to overthrow the institutions of the kingdom under Section 113 of the Criminal Code. Penalties include life in prison and death.

The court cannot hand down sentences, but the ruling is a frightening prospect for the protest movement in Bangkok and an endorsement of the government’s authoritarian turn. The subjects of the ruling—Arnon Nampa, Panupong “Mike Rayong” Jadnok, and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul—are already facing centuries of charges among them for reading speeches and leading protests.

“The trio’s acts were unconstitutional and a misuse of rights and freedom in order to abolish the country’s ruling system of democracy with the king as the head of state,” Judge Chiranit Havanond said of the court’s ruling on Nov. 10.

Protest leader Panusaya walked out of the Constitutional Court when she was refused the right to address the judges before their ruling. “Our demands do not intend to overthrow the ruling system of constitutional monarchy,” she said. The court alleged the protesters hoped to overthrow institutions through the abolition of Section 6 of the Thai Constitution, which endorses the authority of the king.

Activists were forbidden from protesting around the court but demonstrated outside the area and burned a miniature statue of the Democracy Monument, a downtown Bangkok landmark. After the ruling, hackers took over the Constitutional Court website and substituted it with a video playing the song “Guillotine (It Goes Yah)” by Death Grips.

The government, which came to power in a violent military coup in 2014, has long equated reform of the monarchy with overthrow of national institutions. The military-backed Constitutional Court has now endorsed that equation, further endangering protesters.

Once rarely used, Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté law, which forbids insulting the country’s royalty, found new life as the government sought to quell the largely peaceful protests of 2020. Currently more than 150 people have been charged with lèse-majesté, including musicians, children, and politicians. Accusations of lèse-majesté can be brought by anyone in the kingdom and have proved a startlingly effective technique to attack protest leaders.

“I [don’t] agree with the court but I still don’t know how it will affect the movement. I’m waiting to see how they might adapt,” said Protozua, a member of Rap Against Dictatorship, a hip-hop group whose members have faced a number of charges of sedition and lèse-majesté.

Long-standing taboos against criticizing the monarchy were broken when student protesters listed 10 demands for the authorities on Aug. 10, 2020, among them reforms that included revoking the lèse-majesté law, defining royal assets, and investigating extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

The death of the long-ruling and highly popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016, and the succession by Vajiralongkorn, who spends much of his time in Germany, caused a shift in public feeling toward the monarchy.

On Sunday, protesters were once again in the streets, this time marching on the German Embassy. The protest turned violent after about two hours, and one protester was reportedly hit by a live round. Demonstrators successfully entered the German Embassy at around 6:30 p.m. to present a petition asserting their democratic rights.

Protesters marched on the German Embassy last October demanding that the king be investigated for violating German sovereignty by ruling from German soil, and German flags have become common at Bangkok street protests since. Throughout Sunday’s demonstrations, protesters reiterated their condemnation of the Constitutional Court ruling.

“The Constitutional Court’s ruling is an alarming development for the already restricted civic space in Thailand, posing a threat to all those calling for change in the kingdom,” Charles Santiago, chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a member of the Malaysian Parliament, told Foreign Policy. “No one should face such extreme punishment merely for expressing an opinion.”

The constitutional ruling comes in favor of a complaint from the right-wing ultra-royalist political activist and conspiracy theorist Natthaporn Toprayoon, whose previous court complaints included trying to disband a political party for, among other things, having a logo that he said resembled an Illuminati symbol.

“This decision should not be viewed in isolation but comes as Thai authorities are already using restrictive laws to crack down on those across the country, particularly youths, who are calling for greater democratic freedoms and transparency,” Santiago said. “No court decision can push back against the drastic shifts that are occurring in Thai society.”

Yet there is little political will to amend the draconian lèse-majesté law, Section 112 of the Criminal Code. The only party that unequivocally supports amending lèse-majesté, the Move Forward Party, may soon be forcibly dissolved.

Moments after the ruling, Natthaporn said he would petition for dissolution of the liberal Move Forward Party. The Move Forward Party is the current iteration of the Future Forward Party, the dissolution of which helped set the stage for the ongoing Bangkok protests.

Politicians, too, have been caught under the lèse-majesté dragnet, as was the case with Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who was charged with lèse-majesté for a social media speech against the government’s COVID-19 vaccine reliance on Siam Bioscience, owned by the royal coffers.

Thailand’s beleaguered protesters are unlikely to find tangible support from international organizations or from blocks such as ASEAN. The lèse-majesté law was being reviewed before the United Nations Human Rights Council on the same day Thailand’s Constitutional Court found against the protesters—but only a handful of countries, including the United States, France, Germany, and Sweden, condemned use of the law.

Tyler Roney is a journalist in Thailand.

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