As lese majeste sentences escalate under the junta, a system that protects the monarchy only punishes the people.
Lately, I can’t stop thinking about two Thai university students who were thrown in a filthy jail earlier this year for taking part in a play impersonating a fairy tale king and his political advisers.
In February, Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and Porntip Maunkong, 26, pleaded guilty to lese majeste following their arrest last August for their role in The Wolf Bride, a satire set in a fictional kingdom. The play was said to parallel Thailand’s current political conflict.
The Wolf Bride was only performed once, in 2013 at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, as part of a series of events marking the 40th anniversary of a pro-democracy student protest at the university that was brutally crushed by the military regime in October 1973.
At the time it went largely unnoticed and unremarked. That all changed after General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized control of the country in the May 2014 coup.
Now both former students have been charged with one count each of lese majeste, or insulting the monarchy.
Their original sentence was five years in jail, but, as with many lese majeste cases, the accused admitted their guilt and apologised to the king; their sentences subsequently cut in half. They pleaded and hoped for leniency, considering they had no prior convictions. In any case, they didn’t get it, and it was the first time the performance of a stage play in Thailand had landed someone in jail.
Even though they have pleaded guilty, and even if they both serve out their two-and-a-half year terms, upon release Patiwat and Porntip will be ostracised by Thai society. Victims of lese majeste prosecutions often carry a stigma with them for the rest of their lives — I should know.
Unfortunately, today in Thailand and under the current military regime the enforcement of the unjust lese majeste law is increasing in an ever relentless manner.
Just two weeks ago a US State Department spokesperson, Mark Toner, said his government was “deeply concerned” about recent lese majeste charges.
“No one should be jailed for peacefully expressing their views,” Toner said in a statement.
“We regularly urge Thai authorities, both privately and publicly, to ensure that freedom of expression is not criminalised and is protected in accordance with Thailand’s international obligations and commitments.”
Just to illustrate how bad things have become under the junta, earlier this month 48-year-old tour operator Pongsak Sriboonpeng was given a record lese majeste sentence for six posts made to Facebook that were deemed to insult the king. The military court judge sentenced him to 10 years for each post.
The 60-year-term was halved after he pleaded guilty.
In a separate case, a 29-year-old hotel worker and mother of two was sentenced to 56 years by a court in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Her sentence was also halved after a guilty plea.
As in most lese majeste cases, Thai authorities urged the defendants to plead guilty to save time. A prolonged trial could be seen to potentially damage the king’s reputation, someone who is often described as “compassionate”.
Of course there are those who refuse to plead guilty (either at trial or at least during the first five years after their arrest).
One such victim is Darunee Charnchoensilpakul, dubbed “Da Torpedo” for her sharp-tongued speeches. She received 15 years in jail for lese majeste because of talks she made at Red Shirt rallies in 2008.
Sentenced in 2009 and now in her seventh year in jail (she was imprisoned for a year without charge), she has recently been refused treatment for a gum infection.
There’s also Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, a prominent democracy activist and editor who in 2013 was sentenced to 11 years in prison for defaming the king. Several rights groups condemned his sentence as an affront to freedom of expression in the Southeast Asian country.
Somyot was convicted of publishing two articles in an anti-establishment magazine that made negative references to the crown. However, some argue that the heavy sentence is less for what he published, and more for his efforts to reform the lese majeste law.
He has filed an appeal with the royal court but has waited years to no avail for a decision. I have heard from his wife that he too may be forced to seek royal pardon, because of the physical and mental torture he has endured thus far.
That’s the way the system works, even for those who don’t plead guilty.
The lese majeste victim is charged and sentenced often without the details of the charges ever being particularly clear. Then the “benevolent monarch” is seen to grant a pardon, with the media sometimes giving more attention to the pardon than to the case itself.
Meanwhile, the nurturing and cherishing of such a draconian law, as well as long periods of imprisonment and vicious repression, occurs at the very time that the monarchy claims it has no need for such “protection” because it is loved by one and all.
It’s worth remembering that if Somyot is ever granted an appeal, the trial will take place in a court where there is a huge picture of the king hanging on the wall above the panel of judges.
It doesn’t bode well for the almost impossible task of winning such a case, particularly when the judges were appointed and approved by the king in the first place.
Chatwadee Rose Amornpat is based in London. She was charged with lese majeste by the Thai junta in July 2014. For previous New Mandala coverage of her situation see this post.