Twelve Thai pro-democracy protest leaders have been summoned by police to answer charges of royal defamation, the first use of the draconian law in almost three years, as Bangkok gears up for another major rally.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha last week gave the green light for authorities to lay lese majeste charges, which bar any criticism of the royal family, against demonstrators who could now face up to 15 years in prison.
Thailand has for months been rocked by youth-led protests demanding a new constitution, reform of the untouchable monarchy, and for Prayut to resign.
Tensions in the Thai capital are rising — officers deployed water cannon and tear gas at a rally outside parliament last week, with 55 people injured and six shot in scuffles with royalists. The source of the gunfire is under investigation.
Anti-royal graffiti was also daubed around police headquarters in central Bangkok, and demonstrators threw paint at the compound.
Thailand has one of the harshest royal defamation laws in the world. It is routinely interpreted to include any criticism of the monarchy — including content posted or shared on social media.
Under section 112 of Thailand’s penal code — which authorities have not invoked since early 2018 — anyone convicted of defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen or heir faces between three and 15 years in prison on each count.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights says 12 protest leaders have received a summons — among them human rights lawyer Anon Numpha, Panupong “Mike” Jaadnok and prominent student leaders Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak.
“I’m not scared just one bit and I believe that by being sent the 112 summons, it will bring out more people to (Wednesday’s) rally,” Parit told AFP.
“Does this mean the monarchy has declared an all-out war with the people, is that right?”
Protesters last week announced they would rally outside the headquarters of the Crown Property Bureau on Wednesday.
But overnight they flagged they would switch the protest to the main office of the Siam Commercial Bank — in which the king is a major shareholder — to avoid potential clashes with a rival ultra royalist rally.
Soon after coming to power following his father’s death in 2016, the new king took control of the Crown Property Bureau which has assets in banks, companies and prime real estate.
The bureau’s board was previously headed by the finance minister in an arrangement that gave a sheen of public oversight to a trust some experts estimate is worth $30-$60 billion.
The full assets are privately held and remain a closely guarded secret.