Freedom of speech elusive in Thailand as activists face royal defamation charges

Protesters surround Bangkok's Victory Monument. Photo: Prachatai, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

FORUM-ASIA’s report on free speech in Thailand demonstrates the lengths the military will go to in order to protect a system based on patronage, money and outsized influence as activists find increasingly creative ways to push back.

By Doug Snow                                                

On Monday, December 14 several of the young leaders of Thailand’s ongoing movement for democracy and monarchy reform will face royal defamation charges in court for allegedly insulting the monarchy during this year’s protests.

Under Section 112 of Thailand’s legal code, otherwise known as the lese majeste law, defaming, insulting or threatening the Thai royal family is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Reports indicate that more that 90 Thais have been charged with lese majeste since the 2014 coup that saw then-army general Prayuth Chan-o-cha gain power, further inhibiting critical conversations about the monarchy in public.

Amid the ongoing protest movement, however, taboos on critiques of the royal institution are being upended. On November 25, protestors held a large rally in front of the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) to protest against the pervasive financial influence and unchecked wealth of the monarchy.

King Vajiralongkorn, Thailand’s current monarch, is the bank’s largest single shareholder with 23.4% of company shares in his name. SCB is Thailand’s second-largest bank by total assets, worth at least US$60 billion.

In the wake of the rally, 17 student activists and protest leaders were summoned to face charges under the lese majeste law. Some protestors facing charges, like Patsaravalee Tanakitvibulpon, a 25-year-old engineering student, claim they are unafraid of the law and view the charges as an attempt by the government to suppress activists’ voices.

Seeking to push for the repeal of lese majeste, another rally took place on December 10 in front of the United Nations building in Bangkok.

In 2017, the UN’s special rapporteur on the promotion of freedom of opinion and expression called on Thai authorities to stop using the law to suppress critical speech, characterizing the provision as “incompatible with international human rights law.”

Local human rights groups are making the case for full freedom of expression in Thailand

According to Reporters Without Borders, an NGO that focuses on media freedom, Thailand ranked 140th out of 180 countries in its annual Press Freedom Index in 2020.

Similarly, Freedom House, a US-based organization that advocates for democracy and political freedom, gives Thailand just 32 out of 100 points on its Global Freedom Score, a ranking that puts the country in a similar position those the organization labels “not free,” including Iraq and Uganda.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Photo: World Travel & Tourism Council / CC BY

Thailand’s military-backed government is now looking to make good on Prime Minister Chan-o-cha’s statement in November that “all laws and all articles” will be used against the protesters, and human rights groups are sounding the alarm.

In late November, Bangkok-based rights group FORUM-ASIA released a report titled “Thailand Rising: Resistance and Dissent in the Land of Siamese Smiles,” documenting the military-backed government’s efforts to retain power and stifle dissenting voices.

In the report, FORUM-ASIA provides a narrative of how the junta’s leaders used their influence to retain power in the 2019 election after pushing through a new constitution in 2017 that gave them the sole power to appoint the country’s 250-member upper house.

Furthermore, the report documents the ways Chan-o-cha’s government uses the catch-all phrase “peace and order” to pursue suppression, prosecution and detention of critics and other activists—including through the Computer Crimes Act, which makes online dissent, including through social media, potentially dangerous.

FORUM-ASIA’s report details the mechanisms the government uses to keep a hold on power by delegitimizing dissent, noting that in Thailand, “to be seen as a nation-hater [a dissenting activist] is to go against its most fundamental values.”

“The country’s pillars are nation-religion-king—an intricately-linked trinity which guides its governance and defines its identity,” the report continues, arguing that for many Thais in the ruling classes, to be a nation-hater is “to repudiate not just the nation but the system that has been built around it: the oligarchy and the monarchy.”

Activists will continue to circumvent and undermine speech restrictions in Thailand until true freedom of expression is allowed

Amid the government’s attempts to suppress activism and opinions critical of the military and the monarchy, a significant number of young Thais are using a combination of creativity and technology to get around censorship and groupthink.

Local artists such as Baphoboy are using digital media to portray a deeply unequal and hierarchical society led by a martial culture that values subordination and silence. Twitter hashtags and anti-government memes widely shared on Facebook work to undermine official lines of messaging.

Another tactic the protestors are using to undercut government repression is humor. After security forces used water cannons laced with chemicals that burned the eyes and skin on several occasions over the past several months, protestors brought in massive rubber ducks during subsequent protests which quickly began to serve as the activists’ de-facto mascot.

Fake currency printed with ducks in place of Thailand’s king, who is on all officially-printed money, was soon being passed out during protests. Signs at rallies praised the ducks’ bravery in attempts to demonstrate the alleged absurdity of the government’s tactics at undermining dissent, including the tendency of some to push of the monarchy as a divine institution.

During the protest on November 25in front of SCB headquarters, local police said they were prepared to intervene if anyone used the notes to buy food at street stalls that had agreed to accept the coupons, which could later be exchanged for legal tender.

Speaking with FORUM-ASIA, Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, a researcher who focuses on the interplay of violence and non-violence in Thai politics, argued that the country needs to reconsider certain deep-seated cultural practices that help perpetuate rigid hierarchies and circular abuses of power.

“In Thai hierarchical norms, you are not supposed to speak [out against those in power] because the norms do not permit you to,” she said.

“To overcome these fundamental barriers, we need to find the root cause beyond the legal system,” Janjira continued, adding that Thais will need to look at “norms that have been deeply rooted in society” if the country is to overcome its political crises.

In the meantime, there is little indication that young activists and their supporters will back down from their attempts to encourage democratic reform and greater equality in the country. The government is working hard to suppress those voices, but in the face of increasing connectivity and the breakdown of taboos, it could become difficult to keep them down in the longer term.

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