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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand protesters rally to target resurgent lese-majeste law

Thursday rally follows prime minister's threat to resort to draconian law

Pro-democracy protest leaders, from left, Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, Panupong "Mike Rayong" Jadnok, and Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul flash a three-finger salute as they arrive at a police station to be informed of charges of lese-majeste being prepared against them.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's youth-led pro-democracy demonstrators plan a rally on Thursday to protest the kingdom's archaic lese-majeste law, Article 112 of the criminal code, which is being used after three years on hold against student leaders who have called for reform of the monarchy.

The rally will be at the 14 October 1973 Memorial on Ratchadamnoen Avenue close to the capital's administrative heart, and is scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Dec. 10 is a public holiday commemorating Thailand's first constitution in 1932 when absolute monarchy was overturned. Thailand has had 20 constitutions since that time -- a world record.

Protesters have pressed three main demands since the rallies began five months ago: the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet; constitutional amendments with public consultation; and reform of the monarchy under the constitution.

In November, police were empowered to investigate protest leaders for breaching the law of lese-majeste after the prime minister said the government "will intensify its actions and use all laws, all articles, against protesters who broke the law."

Resort to the law was stopped in 2017 after it became evident that its reckless use after a coup in 2014 had damaged the monarchy by drawing it deeper into politics. The law is meant to protect the king and other senior members of the royal family from hurt and defamation.

So far, at least 23 leaders including Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, Panusaya "Ruang" Sithijirawattanakul, Panupong "Mike Rayong" Jadnok, and human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa have been summoned to various police stations to meet investigators and hear what charges are likely to be brought against them. None of them have actually been detained since Prayuth warned of a harsher clampdown on Nov. 19.

Thailand's version of lese-majeste is the most draconian in the modern world. The most severe law of this kind previously was Japan's version during World War II. Saudi Arabia punishes royal insults with a jail sentence of 5-10 years per charge. Thailand's existing law carries prison terms of up to 15 years that can be served in consecutive sentences.

The law was not a part of the kingdom's first constitution. Lese-majeste was made a criminal offense in 1957 at the start of a period in which the monarchy was restored, and the current penalty was put in place in 1976. The law had virtually fallen out of use by the end of the last century, and its revival is evidence of Thailand's deeply polarized politics this century.

The law's application has been stretched well beyond protection of the king, the queen, the heir-apparent, and the regent. In one case, Sulak Sivaraksa, Thailand's most prominent social critic and a self-described "engaged Buddhist," was prosecuted for pointing out the mythology in official accounts of an ancient battle involving the long-dead King Naresuan.

In December 2016, Jatupat "Pai Dao Din" Boonpattararaksa, a student who is one of the leaders of the current movement, was imprisoned for sharing an unflattering biography of King Maha Vajiralongkorn that had been published on the BBC's Thai service.

Thailand's law of lese-majeste is feared for its ferocious and arbitrary application, and harsh penalties. Trials are held in closed courts and given no publicity. The law has been widely criticized by jurists and human rights defenders, and is at odds with most notions of constitutional democracy.

Young Thais have become accustomed to open debates on social media, and bristle at what they consider outdated, restrictive and fundamentally anti-democratic legislation.

Having completely broken the taboo against discussion of the monarchy, some young protesters have recently gone a step further and called for Thailand to be turned into a republic -- which is clear lese-majeste as the law stands.

"It is impossible for Thailand to become a republic," Prayuth told reporters on Tuesday.

Protesters have argued that this assumption effectively places the king above the constitution, while ultraroyalists describe Thailand's political system as "monarchical democracy."

"Lese-majeste is like a defamation charge for the monarchy, which in our view is unnecessary," student leader Panusaya said on Tuesday. "If the king thinks anyone commits any act deemed insulting, he can use the same defamation laws other people do."

Thailand has a large suite of defamation laws covering the monarchy, private individuals and the judiciary. Defamation is a criminal offense, and telling the truth is often not a workable defense.

Ordinary cases of defamation require a complaint to be lodged personally by the victim.

Lese-majeste differs from other kinds of defamation in that anyone can make a complaint at a police station. Police who do not act on such complaints and forward them to prosecutors run the risk of being charged with lese-majeste themselves.

Use of Article 112 was suspended in 2017 on the king's instructions. Laws against sedition and computer crimes have been used in its place against critics and protesters.

According to Sulak, King Vajiralongkorn sent a letter in 2017 to the attorney general and the supreme court instructing that the law not be used. It is unclear if the king endorsed resorting once again to this controversial sanction.

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