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Activist Sopon Surariddhidhamrong has been indicted on a royal defamation charge for a speech given during a Labour Day protest on 1 May 2022 about access to Covid-19 vaccines, after the public prosecutor ruled that he insulted Princess Sirivannavari, who the public prosecutor sees as the heir to the throne.

Sopon Surariddhidhamrong (right) during a protest in March 2023 to demand the release of political prisoners (Photo by Ginger Cat)

Sopon was charged with royal defamation and using a sound amplifier without permission for giving a speech during the 1 May 2022 Labour Day protest at Government House, during which he spoke about the lack of access to Covid-19 vaccines and how certain privileged groups are getting access to vaccines ahead of everyone else.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) said that the public prosecutor indicted Sopon because he said that Princess Sirivannavari, King Vajiralongkorn’s youngest daughter, and her friends were getting the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine before everyone else, and because he said that members of the royal family are getting the AstraZeneca vaccine while the people are denied access to it because the King is a shareholder in Siam Bioscience, the only company licensed to produce the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Thailand.

The public prosecutor indicted Sopon on the grounds that he insulted Princess Sirivannavari, who the prosecutor sees as the heir to the throne, and damaged her reputation, and that he caused a misunderstanding among the public that the King is the largest shareholder in the company and so his family and employees received early access to the vaccine.

The public prosecutor also said that because Sopon said that donations to hospitals were from taxpayers’ money, he has damaged the reputation of the monarchy by insinuating that the royal family did not really help the people but used taxpayers’ money to make donations, and that other parts of his speech implied that the monarchy oppresses the people.

TLHR noted that Sopon was indicted on 15 March 2023, but the public prosecutor stated that he was still held in detention on another charge at the time. However, Sopon was granted bail on 20 February 2023. The public prosecutor also called Sopon on 20 March 2023, telling him to post bail for himself after the indictment has already been filed, claiming that they had not not been able to contact Sopon or his lawyer.

Sopon and his lawyer went to court on 20 March 2023 to request bail on the grounds that he is still receiving treatment for the neurological symptoms resulting from prolonged sleep deprivation, after Sopon intentionally deprived himself of sleep while held in pre-trial detention earlier this year to demand the release of political prisoners. He was later granted bail using a 90,000-baht security covered by the Will of the People bail fund.

Under the current Palace Law of Succession, the King has the sole power to name a male member of the royal family as his heir, and upon being announced to the public, the heir’s position is “secure and indisputable.” He also has the sole power to remove the heir.

The Palace Law also outlines the line of succession, stating that the first-born son of the King and Queen is first in line, followed by his sons and his brothers. Under this law, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, King Vajiralongkorn’s youngest child and only officially recognized son, would be considered first in line for the throne ahead of his sisters, Princess Bajrakitiyabha, often hypothesized by the public as heir presumptive to the throne, and Princess Sirivannavari. Nevertheless, the King has yet to appoint an heir.

The Palace Law also states that women are excluded from the line of succession. However, the 2017 Constitution states that, in the event where the throne becomes vacant and the King has not appointed an heir, the Privy Council may submit the name of a successor to the throne to the Cabinet for the approval of the National Assembly, the combined parliament of the Senate and the House of Representatives. In this case, the Privy Council may name a princess as heir.

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