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Since pro-democracy protests emerged in 2020, Thailand's draconian royal defamation law has been wielded in several cases concerning political expression, often with disproportionate penalties and with verdicts that far exceed the boundaries of protecting freedom of expression. In many cases, law enforcement seems over the top.

The law prescribes that whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punishable from 3 to 15 years. However, this short provision becomes contentious under the interpretations of the parties involved, especially the police, public prosecutors, and courts, since these interpretations follow no clear boundaries, making it impossible to predict which action falls within the scope of the  the law or whom the law is meant to protect.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, the number of royal defamation cases has skyrocketed to over 300, with at least 270 people being charged, most of whom have been sentenced over online political expression. Prachatai has collected data on the following 12 cases of royal defamation between July 2020 and14 May 2024 that seem egregious and anomalous.

1. A programmer, Atirut (last name withheld), was charged with royal defamation for refusing to sit down and shouting “Going anywhere is a burden” as King Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida’s royal motorcade passed a crowd gathered at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre (QSNCC) on 15 October 2022. The public prosecutor accused him of trying to make people think that the King and Queen’s visit caused problems and burdened the public, a claim that could lead to hatred of the King and Queen as well as damage their reputations. They also accused him of resisting arrest by kicking the arresting officers, causing two of them to sustain minor injuries on their arms and backs. Atirut was sentenced to 1 year and 8 months.

Atirut (Photo by iLaw)

2. A protester, Jatuporn Sae-Ung, was sentenced to 3 years in prison for royal defamation over wearing Thai traditional dress at a mock fashion show, Ratsadorn Catwalk, during a protest on Silom Road on 29 October 2020. The indictment stated that Jatuporn was accused of imitating the Queen’s demeanour since as she walked on the red carpet, a woman bowed down to her feet. Jatuporn stopped walking and extended her hands for the protesters to grab. Meanwhile, an unidentified person called “the Queen” and played the royal anthem. The protesters also shouted “Long Live the Queen,” which potentially led the general public and the protesters to understand that Jatuporn is the current Queen. The Court of Appeal later granted her bail with 300,000 baht as security.

Jatuporn Sae-Ung

3. A Facebook user, Warunee, was charged with royal defamation for posting a picture of King Vajiralongkorn changing the seasonal decoration of the Emerald Buddha, edited so that the Buddha is wearing a purple ball gown with a Yorkshire terrier sitting next to the base of the Buddha, along with the message “Emerald Buddha x Sirivannavari Bangkok”. The indictment stated that the image may lead to a misunderstanding that the King was putting a dress onto the Emerald Buddha, which is false information and damages national security. The image also made fun of and insulted the King, and is disrespectful to the Emerald Buddha, an object of worship for Thai Buddhists, making the image an insult towards the religion. The public prosecutor also noted that the dress was from a collection designed by Princess Sirivannavari, the King’s younger daughter, for her clothing label Sirivannavari Couture. Warunee was sentenced to 1 year and 6 months in prison. The Appeals Court denied her bail and she is now detained at the Central Women Correctional Institution.

A poster calling for Warunee's release. (Photo from ไข่แมวชีส)

4. Atthasit, a 29-year-old satirist, was found guilty under a royal defamation charge for posting messages and drawings on his Facebook page. The indictment stated that his posts targeted King Vajiralongkorn and the late King Bhumibol. The first contained the message, “Creating the world’s best hitman … even John Wick has to pay him respect.” The second was a drawing of a man eating a map of Thailand along with the caption “A way out for Thailand?” The public prosecutor said the intention was to defame and insult both monarchs. Atthasit was sentenced to 6 years in prison, reduced to 2 years and 12 months without parole.

5. Lalita Meesuk was charged under the royal defamation law for posting a short video clip on TikTok in 2021 in which she criticised the government’s COVID-19 management and responded to those who commented with one clip mentioning the monarchy. She posted that the budget allocated for the King’s public relations was obtained from the taxes of people who owed nothing to the government or the monarchy. The public prosecutor alleged that the video clip might lead people to understand that the King took the people’s tax money to promote himself. The clip also implied that the King oppressed people to make them poor and then distributed money to them in order to create a sense of gratitude. Lalita’s post was viewed as an attempt to undermine the King’s reputation. She was sentenced to 3 years in prison, later reduced to 1 year and 6 months with a 2-year parole.

Lalita Meesuk

6. Arm, A 22-year-old man, was found guilty of royal defamation charge over a short video clip on TikTok, joking with a stray cat. The complainant, whom Arm had never personally known, said he came across Arm’s 13 October 2021 clip joking with a stray cat and he felt that the words were intended to be sarcastic toward King Vajiralongkorn and King Bhumibol. Arm was initially sentenced to 3 years in prison but due to his guilty plea, this was reduced to 1 year and 6 months, suspended as he had never been imprisoned before. However, the public prosecutor subsequently appealed against the sentence, citing that Arm’s action was deemed serious and he deserved a severe penalty. The court’s decision to reduce the length of the sentence was already lenient, so the prosecutor asked for the sentence not to be suspended. The Appeal Court overturned the initial sentence and decided to sentence Arm to 3 years in prison without suspension, saying that this is to ensure that others will not imitate his action. Arm was granted bail to appeal the sentence to the Supreme Court.

7. Tonmai (pseudonym), A 26-year-old, was sentenced to 2 years in prison on a royal defamation charge for selling a rubber duck calendar. The yellow inflatable rubber duck emerged as a symbol of the pro-democracy movement following a protest on 17 November 2020, during which rubber ducks were used as a symbol of the protesters after they were used as shields against water cannons. Tonmai testified that the duck is a character named Krommaluang Kiakkai Ratsadonborirak (Prince/Princess Kiakkai, the People’s Protector), which is a name given to the duck by some netizens, and he did not intend to mock the King or other members of the royal family. However, the court believed the duck in the calendar represented the King and was intended as mockery. It sentenced him to 3 years in prison but reduced his sentence to 2 years due to his useful testimony. He was later granted bail to appeal the case.

A rubber duck calendar

8. Yukti Mukdawijitra, a lecturer at Thammasat University was indicted under the royal defamation law after he allegedly responded to a May 2021 post by academic-in-exile Somsak Jeamteerasakul about a rumour that King Vajiralongkorn was seriously ill and had been admitted to hospital. Yukti’s post stated "If a rumour isn't true, then it becomes a curse.” The indictment stated that the post showed the intention to curse the King and wish that he would get sick or would die. The prosecutors also stated that the lecturer’s post could potentially tarnish the dignity and the reputation of the King. Yukti was granted bail with 200,000 baht as security with the condition that he was not allowed to travel abroad without the court’s permission.

Yukti Mukdawijit

9. A 25-year-old protester was indicted for royal defamation after burning the King’s portrait in a 2021 protest. He allegedly shot a slingshot at a banner portrait of the King before tearing it down, stepping on it, and setting it on fire. The public prosecutor stated that a royal portrait represents the King and stands for the highest institution of the country, the monarchy, with the result that respecting a picture is the same as respecting the King. Burning his Majesty’s portrait is the same as burning the King himself and it shows an intention to remove the monarchy and change the democratic regime with the King as head of state to a regime without the monarchy. The court indicted Joi as charged while he denied the charges and was released after posting a 100,000 baht security.

10. A 54-year-old musician, Chokdee Rompruk, was found guilty under the royal defamation law and the Computer Crime Act after he livestreamed himself singing a song about the late King Bhumibol during a protest on 23 August 2022. He was sentenced to 3 years for royal defamation and 1 year under the Computer Crime Act. Due to his guilty plea, his sentences were reduced to 1 year and 6 months. Chokdee was also found guilty of royal defamation for singing songs during another protest on the same day. In that case, he was sentenced to 6 years in prison, reduced to 4 years due to a guilty plea and suspended for 2 years.

Chokdee Rompruk (Photo by Ginger Cat)

11. Narin (last name withheld) was sentenced to 3 years in prison on a royal defamation charge for putting a sticker on a portrait of King Vajiralongkorn during a protest on 19 September 2020. The sticker said “Ku Kult”, which is the logo for a political satire page and a parody of the logo for a popular brand of yogurt . A Technology Crime Suppression officer testified to the court saying that Ku Kult is an ‘anti-monarchy’ Facebook page. The court then ruled that his action was intended to insult even though it was not done directly to the King himself. Narin was later granted bail with 100,000 baht as security. The Court of Appeal later dismissed the charge against him.

Narin (wearing a Guy Fawkes mask) with his supporters on the day of the hearing (Photo by Ginger Cat)

12. Jai, a 23-year-old student, was found guilty of royal defamation after she tweeted a picture of the late King Bhumibol and the message “You do not have to remember who I am. Just remember what I did”. The public prosecutor ruled that although the royal defamation law does not explicitly state that it covers only the current king, defaming King Bhumibol is still an offence under the law as it affects King Vajiralongkorn, saying that her tweet meant that King Bhumibol was a murderer and that monarchs are a waste or should not exist in Thai society. She was sentenced to 3 years in prison. However, the court ruled that, since Jai was only 19 years old in 2020 when the tweet was made, it reduced her sentence to 2 years. She was later granted bail to appeal her case using a security of 100,000 baht.


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