One year after lifting of taboo on Thai king, 103 risk prison for royal insult

By Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat

BANGKOK, Aug.3 (Reuters) – In the year since he delivered an unprecedented and taboo-breaking speech openly calling for a discussion of the role of Thailand’s powerful king, the Human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa has spent months in prison charged with the crime of defaming the monarchy.

He is one of 103 people in the youth-led anti-government protests in Thailand, now accused of insulting or threatening King Maha Vajiralongkorn or his immediate family, a crime punishable by imprisonment for up to 15 years old. Hundreds more face further criminal charges.

Arnon, 36, says he has no regrets and swears the lawsuits will not crush the anti-government movement, which in recent weeks has been rebuilding itself.

“I think it was worth it. Now the company can move forward and people can talk about the monarchy,” Arnon told Reuters in an interview while awaiting trial. He denies any wrongdoing.

The king is traditionally portrayed as blameless in conservative Thai culture, and any criticism of the monarch – whom some consider semi-divine – is taboo and illegal.

Arnon, however, says there is a need to speak openly about the monarchy in the push for democratic reforms and the ousting of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who first came to power in a coup. State in 2014 and has long been associated with loyalty to the king.

Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri defended criminal cases against protesters on Monday.

“Sometimes the protests were not peaceful (…) when there is violence, the police have to keep the peace,” Anucha said.

The palace said it would not answer questions about the protests. Prayuth’s office said he retained power in a free and fair election in 2019.

The anti-government movement was already building up last year when Arnon’s speech at a Harry Potter-themed protest on August 3 helped electrify it.

For months, thousands of people took to the streets, sometimes clashing with the police.

FAMILY LEGAL TACTICS

Since last year, 695 protesters have been charged with crimes, including sedition and unrest. Of these, 103 are charged with lèse majesté, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Analyst Titipol Phakdeewanich claims that the Thai military-royalist establishment has used royal insult laws for decades to silence critics.

“The government is using its old legal tactic, which has been partially effective in creating a fear that has kept more people from speaking publicly about the monarchy,” said Titipol, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University.

“But there are people who don’t care,” he said.

Arnon, a youth movement adviser, faces 12 separate lese majesty cases and spent 113 days in jail before being released on bail in June.

Deputy police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen denied that the cases against the protesters were politically motivated.

Protests slowed earlier this year after key leaders were jailed and a severe COVID-19 outbreak pushed many people inside.

But in recent weeks, demonstrations have multiplied.

This time it’s not just the young demonstrators.

In late June, some of the government’s former allies took to the streets to demand Prayuth’s resignation for his handling of the worst COVID-19 outbreak to date.

Arnon said the youth movement will continue its fight.

“If it was a football game, we are a long way from the final whistle,” said Arnon. (Written by Panu Woncha-um and Kay Johnson, edited by Giles Elgood)

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