Debating lese majeste: Is the burning of royal portraits a crime or political expression?

As the demand grows to amend or repeal Article 112, Thailand’s lese majeste law, so too does the number of people being charged with the offense. It remains controversial whether certain actions, such as burning the king’s portrait, can be construed as a violation under this law.

Story by the Isaan Record

In the early morning of September 13, a portrait of King Vajiralongkorn, erected in front of Khon Kaen’s Srinagarind Hospital, was burned.

Just a few days later, another portrait of the king at the Khon Kaen Technical College was also torched.

Only a few years ago, acts like these were unimaginable, but a wave of discontent over the monarchical institution has emerged since last year and continues among the younger generations. Khon Kaen’s internal security operations office responded to these latest incidents by issuing an urgent order to take down all of portraits of the king, especially those on Khon Kaen University’s campus 

Later, Khon Kaen police announced that the suspected arsonists had been arrested. Two fine arts students at Khon Kaen University were accused of being responsible for the first fire. The second incident was pinned on a Khon Kaen Technical College student. All three were granted bail after their arrest.

There was also some backlash from pro-establishment groups. The “Khon Kaen Girls Love the King” group released a statement demanding all of the portraits of the king in Khon Kaen be returned to their places.

Despite the strong reaction of authorities and conservative factions, it’s unlikely that this will be enough to stop the growing appeal for the amendment — or repeal —  of the country’s controversial lese majeste law, commonly known among Thais as Article 112.

The Srinagarind Hospital burning

Lawyer Sathienpong Lorsirirat of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) said the two suspects from the portrait burning at the hospital, “Boss” and “James,” were charged with arson. The investigators are now building up the case before handing it over to prosecutors. 

Boss” and “James,” fine arts students of the Khon Kaen University, are greeted by friends after being granted bail on September 16.

Boss said police came knocking on his door at 7 a.m. on September 16. He said he heard someone shout from downstairs, claiming to have a delivery. He was skeptical and didn’t go down because he hadn’t ordered anything to be delivered. When the ruse failed to get him down from the second floor, he said the men then tried a new tactic, shouting that someone had hit his car. He then opened the curtain to peek out, and saw they were policemen.

Boss said he called his acquaintance, Patipan “Mor Lam Bank” Luecha, for advice. Patipan told him to wait and came over to his house. After Patipan arrived, Boss came down to the ground floor, and police showed him the arrest warrant and took him to the Khon Kaen city police station.

“The day I was arrested, I was flustered because I didn’t expect it. But now I’m just living normally. I go to classes and I go to work,” he said. “When my friends went to the station for me, I was happy to know that I still had friends out there.”

On November 3, Boss went to the police station again, and the investigators requested for him to be put on remand for 12 days. The court later approved his bail on a 35,000-baht bond. He was scheduled to report himself again on November 15.

The arson at Khon Kaen Technical College

When “Thep,” a Khon Kaen Technical College student, learned a warrant was issued for the burning of the royal portrait on his college’s campus, he decided to turn himself in on September 25. He denied all charges. Before turning himself in, police raided his girlfriend’s room and seized his laptop.

He was charged with arson. Police also requested him be put on remand, but the court approved his bail on a 30,000-baht bond.

“I didn’t feel scared at the time. At first, I thought no one would come to help me. I just assumed I’d be taken in [to prison],” Thep said. “I wasn’t anxious. I’d already thought about what kind of charges might be pressed against me. I thought about it because they took my computer.”

If convicted, Thep faces a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and a 14,000-baht fine.

Another TLHR lawyer, Patthana Sriyai, said arson was the only charge Thep was facing as of now. He said police evidence was based on security camera footage, which the police claimed to show the suspect climbing over the fences on the Srichand Road side of the campus, and throwing a gasoline bag at the back of the king’s portrait.

There was a similar case in July in Udon Thani province. A 23-year-old office worker from Nong Han district was accused of burning a portrait of the king and was initially charged by investigators with only arson but the prosecutors later decided to also indict him with Article 112.

Eyes on prosecutors’ decision 

Lawyer Sathienpong said the Khon Kaen cases are similar to one in Bangkok, in which singer and outspoken activist Chai-amorn “Ammy” Kaewwiboonpan was accused of torching a king’s portrait in front of the Klong Prem Central Prison in February.

When asked about the status of the cases, Lt. Col. Methee Srivanna of the Khon Kaen police told The Isaan Record over the phone that he could not give out any additional information as the police investigations have already been concluded.

Sunai Pasuk, an advisor of the international rights advocate organization, Human Rights Watch. Credit: Sunai Pasuk/Facebook

Is the burning of a royal portrait a violation of Article 112 

Advisor to Human Rights Watch, Sunai Pasuk, said the burning of royal portraits can be construed as a criminal offence, which by international standards need to be interpreted as direct, precise, and definite as possible, and not as broadly as legal language would allow.

“You must see [case by case] whether burning something, or the spraying of messages or symbols, can be punishable as  an insult, a malicious act or a form of harassment,” he said. “However, the Thai state has now broadened the interpretation in a way that anything that shows signs of disloyalty [to the institution] can be considered an offence.”

Sunai said that, principally, charges of property damage for this kind of crime would be a direct interpretation of the offense. However, now the authorities are inclined to try to attach the violation of Article 112 into such cases.

“My question is, how is this a violation of Article 112?,” asked Sunai. “Police need to be able to answer this question. They should not indict people arbitrarily. However, now the norm of pressing Article 112 charges, whether in Bangkok or other provinces, is that anything involving portraits of the king is likely to lead to police, investigators, and prosecutors opening a criminal case of [Article] 112,” he said.

Sunai also pointed out that suspects of 112 cases are likely to be indicted or convicted rather than acquitted or exonerated. He said it creates an atmosphere that once the charges have been pressed, a guilty verdict is inevitably secured. Therefore, it doesn’t leave much room for the suspects.

“Now, many cases are not strictly based on legal or human rights principles. It’s like the goal has already been set; once you’re charged, you’ll be found guilty,” he said.

Sunai said that several human rights organizations are concerned that Article 112 has been used disproportionately as a political weapon.

“Since the [2014] coup d’etat, we’ve seen a lot of lawsuits that go beyond the law itself,” Sunai said. “The wording of this law gives [protection only] for the king, the queen, the heir apparent and the regent. But lately, the interpretation about those [entitled for protection] have been overstepped, and [the interpretation] of what act can be considered a violation, an insult, a harassment, or a malicious act has also been broadened.”

According to TLHR, police have opened lese majeste cases against at least 154 people as of October 28. It noted that the number of people arrested over the charge increased after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha announced last November that “all laws” would be used against “protesters who broke the law.”


This article was published originally in Thai on Nov. 4, 2021. Read here

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