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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand has most key pro-democracy leaders in detention

Three more locked up for lese-majeste; student movement looks rudderless

Key student leaders Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul, Panupong "Mike" Jadnok, Jatupat "Pai" Boonpattararaksa and others spoke to the press when they arrived at the Office of the Attorney General on Mar. 8  to be informed they face charges of lese-majeste. The three were later denied bail and incarcerated.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's pro-democracy movement is becoming increasingly leaderless after the Criminal Court in Bangkok denied bail on Monday to three more leading protest figures: Panusaya "Ruang" Sithijirawattanakul, Panupong "Mike Rayong" Jadnok and Jatupat "Pai Dao Din" Boonpattararaksa.

The three have been charged with lese-majeste in addition to other alleged offenses.

The Office of the Attorney General notified 18 protesters in all of their indictments earlier in the day. They went from the office to the court, where bail applications for the top three were denied but granted to the other 15. 

The 15 released on bail have not been charged with lese-majeste but other serious offenses, including sedition. 

Much of the pro-democracy movement's top leadership is now locked up in pretrial detention.

Student activist Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, and two other top protesters have been in Bangkok Remand Prison since Feb. 9. Their bail bonds of 200,000 baht ($6,700) were not accepted on the grounds that the defendants were alleged to have reoffended repeatedly after being allowed out on previous occasions.

Thailand's lese-majeste law, or Article 112 of the criminal code, is the most draconian law of its kind in the world. Defendants face up to 15 years in jail per offense, with consecutive terms possible. Anyone can make a complaint of lese-majeste to the police.

Pretrial detentions can last months or even longer. In January, a retired civil servant was sentenced to a record jail term of 43 years and six months for lese-majeste. She had shared an audio clip deemed critical of the monarchy some six years earlier. Her pretrial detention lasted nearly four years.

"May everyone continue to fight," Panusaya posted on Twitter ahead of her detention. "We will fight by everyone's side until we win," she said, hinting that others might step up to lead future protests.

Mathawee Sithijirawattanakul, the sister of anti-government protest leader Panusaya 'Ruang' Sithijirawattanakul, breaks down after her sister was refused bail on a lese-majeste charge and sent for indefinite pre-trial detention by the Criminal Court in Bangkok on Mar. 8.   © Reuters

The latest detentions are expected to weaken the movement that was already looking increasingly rudderless following the incarceration of Parit and Arnon last month.

Protests picked up steam in July 2020, attracting tens of thousands at their peak in September and October. They were struggling to attract big numbers by December, however, when a recess into the new year was called. The pullback coincided with resurgence of COVID-19, and the adoption of a more intransigent stance by the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

The movement's three core demands have been the resignation of Prayuth and his cabinet; constitutional amendments with public consultation; and reform of the monarchy under the constitution.

The absence of any progress on the demands antagonized radical elements, who have resorted to more violent methods, including throwing projectiles, firecrackers and homemade bombs.

Scuffles with the police have caused injuries on both sides and led to arrests. On Feb 28, police fired rubber bullets for the first time. 

Peaceful protesters who were happy to join orderly rallies in the past became more wary, and stopped showing up. There was also concern that anyone could be slapped with lese-majeste after Prayuth confirmed in November that it was again in play. 

"I am disappointed to see smaller turnouts lately, but I can't blame those who left," said Bew, a female protester who attended a rally on Feb 19 outside parliament. Only a few hundred people turned up on that occasion to monitor a censure debate on Prayuth and his cabinet. "I also feel I am exposing myself to more risks than before through attending rallies," she said. 

Use of the law of lese-majeste was dropped in 2018 on the instructions of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Prayuth said last last year. Laws relating to sedition and computer crimes were used in its place until November when its use was resumed. Prayuth announced that his government "will intensify its actions and use all laws, all articles, against protesters who broke the law."

Ultraroyalists and government officials have busied themselves over recent months filing complaints against the more prominent young protesters. At least 58 activists face a variety of criminal charges carrying heavy penalties.

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