Decoding Thailand’s lese majeste law

Story by Doungtip Karnrit 

Translated by Praewpailin Thongbaingam

“They accuse us of trying to overthrow the monarchy. How can we do that? There’s only one way, and that is [overthrow] the one who controls the game, isn’t that right, brothers and sister?”

—Words attributed to student activist Phongsatorn Tancharoen of Mahasarakham University, according to the charge sheet of Phaholyothin Police Station for protest in front of the Siam Commercial Bank headquarters on Nov. 25, 2020.

Other activists in Isaan have also been charged under Section 112. Jatuporn Sae-Ung, a member of the “Free Buriram” group, along with a 16-year-old member of the Coalition of Salaya Students, were charged with the crime for participating in a “fashion show” on October 29 last year. The charge against them says that wearing Thai traditional dress in a mocking way is insulting or threatening to the Queen.

Attapon “Yai” Buapat, a leader of the “Khon Kaen’s Had Enough” was also charged with Section 112 for a speech me made, calling for Berlin to look into whether His Majesty the King had violated Germany’s sovereignty by exercising his power on German soil on October 26.

Political activist Attapon “Yai” Buapat of “Khon Kaen’s Had Enough” speaks at protest in Khon Kaen

Attapon “Yai” Buapat, a leader of the “Khon Kaen’s Had Enough” was also charged with Section 112 for a speech me made, calling for Berlin to look into whether His Majesty the King had violated Germany’s sovereignty by exercising his power on German soil on October 26.

Other activists charged with Section 112

In November and December last year, more than 40 activists have been charged with Section 112. In one Bangkok protest march from Wat Phra Si Mahathat BTS station to the 11th Infantry Regiment Headquarters on November 29 last year, led to eight charges of Section 112. 

The messages—“I may not go back to loving you,” “You are very brave,” and “It’s because everybody’s eyes are widely opened”—were tweeted by Inthira “Sai” Charoenpura (@charoenpura) who was surprised to receive a police summon over Section 112 charges from the Bangkhen police station on December 21.

Photo of the police summons sent to Inthira Charoenpura, demanding that she acknowledge charges at Bangkhen police station on Dec. 21, posted on her Facebook.

In this case, eight Thai activists have been charged, seven who had been speakers at the protest: Anon Nampa, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, Chinnawat Chankrachang, Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, Pimsiri Petchnamrob, Nattatida “Wan” Meewangpla, Pornpromsorn Veerathamjari. Inthira had supported the protest by helping supply food, beverages, and toilet trucks. Although she didn’t speak at the protest, she was nonetheless charged with Section 112.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) reports that in Inthira’s case, she was charged for making online statements like, “very brave,” a phrase used among activists. Police say the phrase references what King Vajiralongkorn had told supporters for their confronting youth protesters. As such, it is used by activists in a mocking, sarcastic, insulting way that demeans royal dignity in the eyes of society. 

Police cited Inthira’s tweets to call supporters to join the protest at the 11th Infantry Regiment—“Everyone are the leaders”—and for her tweeting (@Charoenpura twitter) information about the toilet trucks and public vans for people coming from outside Bangkok.

She had also tweed, “I’m concerned about the security teams the most.” These tweets, along with her material support of a protest at which words deemed as lese majeste were spoken, justified the charge against her, as summarized by Sarawuth Police Lieutenant Colonel Boottri of Bangkhen Police Station.

Inthira had to acknowledge that the aim of the protest at the 11th Infantry Regiment headquarters had direct implications on the monarchy.

Response of the seven activists charged with Section 112 for making speeches on Nov. 29

1. Anon questioned King Vajiralongkorn’s decision to take personal command of all of the military because he believed such an action incompatible with a democratic, constitutional monarchy.

2. Parit said it was not necessary for the king to have a private guard or for him to interfere in the power of the people. The monarchy cannot deny that it was not involved in the forced disappearances of activists who have come out to protest.

3. Shinnawat said that criticizing the transfer of assets of the entire Crown Property to the king personally should not be interpreted as trying to overthrow the monarchy because the criticism of the transfer is an expression of concern and a call for the assets to be transferred back to the government.

4. Somyoth spoke about the history of the 11th Infantry Regiment and its duty to guard the palace in the reign of King Rama VI. He questioned the reason why there weren’t military for the people and called for accountability and transparency of the institution.

5. Promsorn questioned why there had to be a King’s Guard and why the king had to have a representative in the Office of the Crown Property Bureau. The monarchy had to be scrutinized.

6. Pimsiri spoke about the participation of the military and monarchy in Thailand’s coups. She also talked about the UN Special Rapporteur’s comment that “lesè-majesté provisions have no place in a democratic country,” and firmly expressed that Section 112 is problematic and should be repealed.

7. Nattatida said, “You want to serve me with 112, when I don’t know anything about your 112.” The law is used to suppress the voices of those criticizing the government. 

Those accusing her say she was being too critical of the work of the government for using Section 112, but intend to cancel any other actions toward monarchy which are inappropriate.  

From the speeches of those charged, the police report says that within the context of the speeches made, the general public could perceive the words as defamation and was insulting to the monarchy and could cause people believe the words of these suspects were illegal as they defamed, insulted, or threatened the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent.

“The phrases ‘Very brave. Very good. Thank you’ are not insulting or dehumanizing words.” Pawinee Chumsri, lawyer from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR). Photo credit: iLaw.

Lawyer points out that factual criticism does not violate Section 112.

Pawinee Chumsri, a lawyer from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) who has been helping those accused of Section 112. Especially after the 2014 military coup, Section 112 has been increasingly problematic. There have been repeated efforts to have the law revised or repealed since the political unrest in the late 2000s. One effort was the “Campaign for the Abolition of Article 112” (CAA) as the law was used as a tool of political repression.

Pawinee points out that a serious problem of this law is that it allows anyone to use it to press charges against others.

“The problems of section 112 have been widely interpreted,” she says. “Inthira’s post, for example, contains the words ‘Very brave,’ which are quoted from King Rama X’s words, but it doesn’t violate the law. You need to focus on social context, and not just one quote.” 

She also says that “mockery,” as used by the authorities, is not mentioned in Section 112 as the law clearly states that “the defaming, insulting or threatening of the royal family” is illegal. Therefore, mockery is legal.

Pawinee argues that “insult” has a specific definition. Not all mocking words are insulting. Saying “Very brave. Very good. Thank you.” is not insulting or dehumanizing. And even the defamation law has an exemption in the case of factual criticism or when what was expressed can contribute to the public good.

Political public speech calling for reform of the monarchy or scrutiny of military allocations or budgets is allowed because it brings problems to light that can improve the institution of the monarchy as it uses budget that come from taxes.

“The king is a public figure, so people must be allowed to criticize and scrutinize it because it is for the public good,” explains the lawyer.

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