Ex-novice monk convicted for royal defamation over protest speech

Activist Saharat Sukkhamla, a former novice monk and a graduate from Mahidol University’s College of Religious Studies, has been found guilty of royal defamation over a speech at a protest in November 2020.

Saharat Sukkhamla at a panel discussion on the royal defamation law organised by iLaw on 8 October.
(Photo by iLaw)

The complaint against Saharat was filed by Ratthanaphak Suwannarat, who claimed that he saw a video recording of Saharat’s speech and noted that it contained insults against the King. Saharat reported to Pathumwan Police Station in July 2021 to hear the charges, more than 5 months before the public prosecutor decided to indict him.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) said that the public prosecutor decided to indict Saharat on the grounds that parts of his speech insulted the King. The indictment gave examples of the offending parts, such as when Saharat asked why we can only discuss the King’s good deeds but cannot discuss his bad side, and when he said that Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha’s statement that the authorities will use every law against the protesters, even the royal defamation charge, would make the King break his promise, since the King said that the royal defamation law would not be used against citizens.

The public prosecutor said that Saharat’s speech could cause misunderstanding concerning the King, such as making him seem like someone who could harm the country or someone who is dishonest and does not keep his promise or that he will intervene in law enforcement. The public prosecutor also claimed that Saharat intended to harm the monarchy and cause a loss of respect for the monarchy.

TLHR reported on Thursday (19 October) that the Ratchadaphisek Criminal Court found Saharat guilty of royal defamation. It ruled that the content of his speech can cause people to think that the King is not worthy of respect, leading to a loss of faith in the monarchy.

Citing Section 6 of the Constitution, which says that the King is “enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated,” the Court ruled that Saharat’s speech caused hatred against the King and an understanding that the King damaged the country by asking why one cannot discuss the King’s bad side. It also ruled that he insulted the King by saying that the King would be breaking his promise if the government used the royal defamation law against protesters, as there is no public record of him telling the government not to do so.

The Court sentenced Saharat to 3 years in prison, but reduced his sentence to 2 years because he gave useful testimony. He was later granted bail using a security of 300,000 baht and on condition that he must not participate in activities that cause disorder in the country or do anything that damages the monarchy. He is also prohibited from leaving the country without court permission.

As a novice monk, Saharat often participated in pro-democracy protests in 2020 and joined a group known as the New Restoration Order, also known as the “Carrot Gang” among young protesters due to the orange robes worn by Thai Buddhist monks. The group called for reform of the Thai Buddhist clergy and for it to be removed from the secular government’s authority in a move towards a secular state.

Growing up on the Thai-Lao border in Phayao, Saharat told iLaw his family had him ordained because they were suffering from an economic crisis after the 2006 military coup. Although he said he was not religious and had not thought about entering monkhood, his mother told him in 2010 that she could only afford to keep one child in school and had Saharat ordained so he could get an education while his mother paid for his sister’s schooling. His experience allowed him to understand inequality in the Thai society, he said. He noted that there are many boys like him in the country’s rural areas who enter the monkhood just so they can get an education, and that this is evidence that economic inequality means the lower class has limited life choices.

Saharat left monkhood in November 2021, almost 12 years after he was ordained as a novice. He said that has already been facing pressure from the clergy for joining pro-democracy protests, noting that a monk once gave footage of him from a temple’s CCTV system to the authorities. After he was charged with royal defamation, the National Office of Buddhism increased its efforts to have him disrobed. At the time, he was staying with another monk, who asked him not to leave the temple for the daily alms collection so that no one would know where he is. However, he decided to leave monkhood since he would not be able to properly perform his religious duties if he stayed.

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