By Ramon Abarca
Bangkok, Apr 13 (EFE).- The crime of lèse-majesté has become the Thai government’s most effective weapon to quash the opposition and any attempt at criticism.
Charismatic politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is the most prominent figure to be accused of insulting the king after having questioned the country’s vaccination program, which could land him in prison.
“I think it’s clear that the government wants to silence me. They don’t want me to speak up… And it’s clear that Article 112, the lèse-majesté law, violates basic human rights. And that’s the freedom of speech,” the banned politician, who could end up in prison after his unexpected success in the 2019 elections that led him to become leader of the opposition, told EFE in an interview.
The Thai police charged Thanathorn, 42, with defaming the monarchy on Mar. 30 after he questioned an agreement with the Siam Bioscience, a local company owned by King Vajiralongkorn, to produce the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines.
According to Article 112 of the Thai penal code, acts of lèse-majesté, including those thought to be insults, defamation or threats against the king, queen, crown prince or regent, are punishable by three to 15 years’ imprisonment.
Although the the lèse-majesté law had barely been applied since Vajiralongkorn’ arrival to the throne in 2016, the authorities began to use it in recent months against the leaders and participants of protests calling for democratic reforms in the country since last year, including that of the monarchy.
“We have to admit the fact that the relationship between the monarchy and the people is at its lowest in decades. These are the facts. That’s why we support the call for monarchy reform. We believe that it’s the best way to preserve the monarchy,” the founder of the progressive Future Forward party explained.
The party was banned months after the disputed 2019 elections – the first after the 2014 coup – which were won by the party of the general behind the coup, Prayuth Chan-ocha.
The current monarch, King Vajiralongkorn, has not inherited the charisma and respect enjoyed by his father, late Bhumibol Adulyadej, and spends a large part of the year in Germany, evoking criticism during the coronavirus pandemic.
Thanathorn pointed out another thorny issue: the monarch’s finances, surrounding which, he said, there is a lot of secrecy.
“The royal household office receives about a $300 million budget per year from the Thai government. And that happens during Covid. The increase, it increased…what… I don’t know… 100 percent in the last five years. So, people start questioning the spending,” he said.
It was the student leaders that spearheaded a wave of massive protests in Thailand in July last year who began to openly question the role of the monarchy, a taboo subject in the country until then.
The debate made its way to social media and the streets and the Thais lost their fear of speaking about the monarch in a few months.
“It came as a surprise to us as well. We would have never believed that things would move so fast,” said the activist who appeared in Thai politics like a breath of fresh air with his reformist proposals and became very popular among younger voters.
Thanathorn cites what is happening in theaters as an important example of the changes that are taking place in the country.
“If you go to the cinema now, you could see for yourself that people are not standing up when the royal anthem is played. This is new, this is something that happened only recently,” he said.
The main leaders of the pro-democracy protests, most of them young university students who dared to speak publicly about a reform of the monarchy so that the king would not have an active role in politics, have been accused of lèse-majesté and are in prison.
These arrests have left leaderless the protests that shook the foundations of Thailand’s political system, controlled by the monarch, the military and the oligarchy.
“I think what they have achieved, I think what surprised me most, what I admire most is the cultural challenge. If you look at the protests, they not only challenged General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is the prime minister, they also challenged the authoritarian culture in Thailand. They also challenged the pro-establishment culture in Thailand,” said the activist, who was disqualified from politics in 2020 in a dubious judicial process. EFE