Thailand’s junta intensifies its hunt for critics of the monarchy
Economist – May 18th 2017
The only historical record of Queen Chammathewi, the legendary founder of the Thai city of Lamphun, comes from a fanciful 15th-century chronicle written on palm leaves in an ancient liturgical language. It describes how, some time in the seventh century, she came to a spot that the Buddha had supposedly visited centuries before. With the help of a Buddhist ascetic, she conjured a city out of the jungle, subjugated the natives and begat not one, but two royal dynasties.
There is no proof that the queen (pictured) ever really existed, and she definitely falls outside the scope of Thailand’s law on lèse-majesté, which bars criticism only of the reigning king, queen, heir apparent and regent. But Thais should not feel they can say whatever they want about her. So, at least, a provincial court implied last month when it convicted a local of disseminating false or illegal material online for posting a lascivious comment about her on Facebook.
Thailand has always treated its royals with exaggerated respect, periodically clapping people deemed to have insulted the king behind bars. But some thought the death of the long-reigning King Bhumibol in October and the accession of the less revered Vajiralongkorn might curb the monarchists’ excesses. Instead, it seems to have spurred them on. The military junta that runs the country is enforcing the draconian and anachronistic lèse-majesté law with greater relish than its predecessors.
At least 105 people have been detained or are serving prison sentences for lèse-majesté, compared with just five under the elected government the junta overthrew in 2014. Many of them posted critical comments about the royal family on social media; some simply shared or “liked” such comments. Other arrests have been on even pettier grounds. Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a student activist, is on trial for sharing a profile of King Vajiralongkorn published by the BBC’s Thai service. Police have warned that those agitating for his release could themselves face charges. A well-known academic, Sulak Sivaraksa, remains under investigation for several instances of lèse-majesté, including questioning whether a 16th-century battle involving a Thai king really took place.
This month security forces arrested Prawet Prapanukul, a human-rights lawyer best known for defending lèse-majesté suspects. He risks a record 150 years in jail if convicted of all ten counts of lèse-majesté he faces. Several recent sentences for insulting royals have exceeded 50 years; the standard for murder is 15-20 years.
The government is also pushing YouTube and Facebook, as well as local internet firms, to remove content deemed critical of the monarchy. The junta demanded that Facebook block 131 “illicit” pages by May 16th or be blocked itself in Thailand. In the end it let the deadline slide, but it is still passing on court orders to oblige Facebook to take down the offending posts. It says Facebook is co-operating. One blocked post shows the king, who spends most of his time in Germany, strolling through a mall in a yellow “crop top” that reveals elaborate tattoos.
Exiled critics of the monarchy and their foreign defenders are also in the junta’s sights. In April it issued an order prohibiting Thais from interacting on social media with a trio of prominent dissidents abroad, including the one who posted the video of the king. It fiercely protested the decision of South Korea’s 18 May Foundation, named in honour of an uprising that was crushed by the army, to award its annual human-rights prize to Mr Jatupat.
Thai kings have a long history of fostering democratic reform, but the army does not seem so protective of that. Last month a brass plaque in Bangkok that commemorated the king’s acceptance of constitutional government in 1932 mysteriously disappeared. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the junta, has scolded Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a student activist, for campaigning against a tradition whereby students at Thailand’s grandest university prostrate themselves in front of a statue of its eponymous founder, King Chulalongkorn. Never mind that King Chulalongkorn himself abolished prostration in 1873.