A disability rights advocate spent half a day in jail – in his wheelchair – after a court unexpectedly accepted a criminal case against him and held him in custody as his lawyers scrambled to raise bail.
His alleged crime: posting a photo of a car that he believed was improperly occupying a wheelchair user’s parking space. He was slapped with a libel lawsuit, raising fears that advocacy for disability rights, an endeavor rarely backed by laws, is about to get even more difficult.
Manit “Saba” Intharapim poses with a car seen blocking a handicapped parking space at Chiang Mai International Airport in Chiang Mai province on 16 May 2022. Image: Accessibility is Freedom.
Having punched a skytrain elevator in a rage, argued with a motorcyclist who blocked a zebra crossing for wheelchairs, and almost been run over by a motorcycle taxi on the pavement, Manit “Saba” Intharapim thought he had seen everything in his eight years of speaking out for accessibility rights.
But he never imagined he would be sued for libel, a criminal offense under Thai law, for his advocacy work. And he certainly didn’t expect he would be locked in a holding cell at the courthouse.
“It was like a temporary imprisonment. I was locked up for a half a day,” said Manit, who has been using a wheelchair since a motorcycle accident when he was 24. “It’s where they held all the convicts, and I was locked up with them.”
He stands accused of libel, which carries a maximum two-year jail term, for shaming a motorist who allegedly occupied a handicapped parking spot. Although key details in the case are being contested – the accuser maintains his father is a wheelchair user, but Manit said there was no proof of it – the activist said the unprecedented legal action may have a chilling effect on the movement as a whole.
“This is not just a personal issue, because it’s a matter of fighting for the common good,” Manit, now 54, said in an interview.
His saga also highlights, once again, the lack of serious enforcement in accessibility issues, like Skytrain elevators and disability toilets in public buildings.
Manit “Saba” Intharapim talks to reporters about a lack of wheelchair elevators on BTS stations in December 2015.
On some fronts, like parking spaces for the handicapped, there is no law, leaving it to ordinary citizens like Manit to fight for their rights, putting themselves at risk of legal retaliation in the process.
“I think there has to be a law that can be truly enforced,” said Nalutporn Krairiksh, the editor of ThisAble Me, a news agency that focuses on disability rights.
“And there should be a mechanism for proportional punishment in cases of violations. Right now there is nothing. The existence of handicapped parking spaces still relies on asking for cooperation.”
She added, “This would prevent conflict among people, like in Saba’s case.”
Fights for rights
An IT professional by occupation, Manit is better known to the media and the public as a longtime advocate for the rights of people with disability to use and access public venues as freely as anyone else – rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution, but in reality, rarely taken seriously.
For instance, he was often the loudest voice calling for disabled parking spaces at commercial venues, like shopping malls. Although Manit said such spaces are now commonly found in many department stores, largely due to his relentless social media campaigns and high-profile media coverage, not everyone respects the parking slots.
He documented many of the violations on his group’s Facebook page, called “Accessibility is Freedom.” Sometimes, if Manit is around, he confronts the drivers and asks them why they parked in a spot reserved for wheelchair users, then uploads the videos or photos of the exchange for his followers.
“Sometimes I just sat there and waited,” Manit said. “If I suspected they were not people with disabilities, I’d wait for them so I could have a conversation with them.”
In one of the videos, Manit waited around for nearly 3 hours before the vehicle owner came back to the car, and sure enough, they were perfectly capable of walking without the need for a wheelchair. The video was viewed more than 700,000 times.
For most of the time, Manit relies on social media users to send him photos of cars and motorcycles blocking handicapped parking spots, which he then shares on Facebook.
These posts typically go viral in no time and attract numerous comments criticizing the drivers, like the photo he shared of a red Nissan that hogged a space for disabled parking slot at a Tesco Lotus branch on May 1. It was shared more than 200 times within hours.
A post by Accessibility is Freedom shows a car blocking accessible parking at Phanat Nikhom District on May 1, 2022.
Nalutporn, the ThisAble.Me editor who is also a wheelchair user, said she still encounters similar problems when going out by car. Many buildings, she said, have no spaces for disabled parking, or their spaces aren’t up to standard, or they are reserved for other vehicles, like flashy ‘supercars.’
“So people with disabilities who need a large space around the vehicle, like wheelchair users, cannot really park,” Nalutporn said. “There were many times when I rode along with a friend who also has a disability as the driver. We park at a space for wheelchair users, but when we come back, another car is blocking the space, so my friend can’t get back in the car. We have to ask other people for help.”
In many of the photos he shared, Manit did not blur the license plate numbers; he said social shaming is the best way to get results when it comes to making a change. After all, Manit said, many shopping malls only systematically set aside handicapped parking spots after he shamed them.
A post by Accessibility is Freedom shows a car blocking accessible parking at Suan Rot Fai on May 7, 2022.
“When people still snatch the spaces, we need to keep shaming them,” he said. “Social measures have been my main instrument for the past 8 years. The social media world has been helping bombard them. … It’s one way of sending out the message.”
He continued, “We have to acknowledge that we live in a society of social media drama. But drama can be one weapon for good, too. We just have to know how to use it.”
The trouble for Manit began in August 2020, when he shared a photo someone sent him of a Toyota Hilux Revo taking up a disabled parking space at a Tesco Lotus in Bangkok. As always, Manit shared it and posed the question whether the truck really needed to be there. He also put his phone number so the driver could contact him.
“At first when I posted it, I blurred the license plate, and said in an official manner, ‘Do you really need to park in this spot? Please phone me.’ I left the case alone for a week. No one contacted me, so I posted the same photo, but this time showing the license plate,” Manit said. “That’s all. People shared it all over the place and rained down the insults.”
Soon enough, he received messages in a chat application from someone claiming to be the owner. Manit said the man would not say whether he or his passengers were using a wheelchair on that day, but told him off for posting the photo and damaging his reputation.
“Judging from his tone, he was really mad. He asked me ‘Who do you think you are?’ So I asked him what I told you [about the handicapped parking]. He would only say ‘Who are you? What right do you have? You do this, it damages me’” Manit recalled. “We couldn’t make sense of each other and we stopped talking. And then I forgot about it.”
Manit and a group of Chulalongkorn University students pose for a photo together after inspecting the accessibility of the university’s facilities on April 20, 2022.
Half a year later, a court warrant arrived. That’s when Manit learned that the driver had retained a lawyer and sued him for libel at Ratchadaphisek Criminal Court. The man reportedly argued to the judge that his father was paralyzed in his lower body and needed a wheelchair to get around, so he qualified for the parking slot. Manit said he had doubts, and decided to contest the charge.
Manit said the plaintiff brought his father to present himself at the court. The elderly man couldn't walk very well and had to use a court wheelchair, Manit said, but it is unclear whether he really needed a wheelchair on the day that sparked the controversy.
So on April 18, Manit went to a pretrial court session in which the plaintiff was to be quizzed by the judge. He wanted to hear what the man had to say, even though his own lawyers said it was not necessary for Manit to be there in person because it was considered a routine procedure.
To his utter surprise, Manit said, the court decided there were grounds for the lawsuit to proceed and held Manit at the courthouse jail until he could post bail, citing potential flight risk. He was now officially a defendant in a criminal case. Manit said he was taken aback by the tough approach.
“In my personal opinion, the court didn’t look at the reality at all – how could I possibly have fled anywhere? I was in my wheelchair! There was no point,” Manit said. “And I didn’t murder anyone! I didn’t expect at all to spend half a day in jail.”
His lawyers raced to gather paperwork and managed to post a bond, set at 10,000 baht, just before the court office closed for the day. “Another five minutes, and they’d have carried me off to prison,” Manit said.
Defaming a person is punishable by up to one year in prison, but the penalty increases to two years if the defamation is committed through ‘publication.’
The law is often used by influential individuals, businesses and politicians to ward off unsavoury media coverage or public criticism. Once a complaint is filed, police typically pursue the case with little or no regard to the nature of the alleged offense. In November 2020, an American citizen spent a day in jail after a hotel on Koh Chang sued him for libel following a critical review he wrote on TripAdvisor.
As a result, threats or charges of libel are usually enough to frighten many news organizations and citizen journalists into silence – a culture of fear known among free speech advocates as SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation.
“Personally speaking I think there is an overuse of the libel law at the present time,” Sasipa Pruksadachan, a law lecturer at Thammasat University, said in an interview, “whether in cases of a threat to prosecute to stop other people voicing their opinions, or actual prosecutions like SLAPP. It is true that in many cases, it may indeed amount to libel, but we don’t often give importance to balancing it against freedom of expression.”
A group of wheelchair users are forced to pray outside a temple in Nakhon Pathom province in August 2016 due to a lack of wheelchair access into the temple.
Manit said he respects his accuser’s right to charge him with libel.
“I don’t have anything against the lawsuit. He has every right to sue me. He got into trouble from my actions, so he bears a grudge. He’s a fellow human being,” he said. “But there’s a cost to me, too. To be put in jail for half a day, that has a cost for me as well.”
Manit said the court did suggest the two parties negotiate and settle the case before it goes to trial. His lawyer soon came back with an offer from the plaintiff: Manit must apologize publicly and pay compensation to his accuser. He rejected it immediately.
“This fight is a big thing. If I retreat even though I still haven’t proved that I acted correctly, then I think the fight for rights will just come crashing down, because no one else will dare to take up this issue again,” Manit said. “That’s why I told my lawyers: let’s fight.”
He added that it was the first time he ever faced a lawsuit as a result of his campaigns. Even when he got it wrong in the past, Manit said – he once mistook a car to be blocking a disability parking lot when in fact it was a woman occupying a “Lady’s Parking” place – the person involved responded by explaining her side of the story and telling him off on his Page, but there was no legal action. Manit said he also apologized to her in that case.
A photo posted by Accessibility is Freedom shows a van setting up shop in a handicapped parking space at Tesco Lotus Khlong Luang.
“I have to acknowledge that under Thai law, they have the right to go for me. That is the libel law,” Manit said. “But if I was afraid, I’d have quit long ago.”
Sasipa, the Thammasat law lecturer, also said she wants to see more effort given to balancing both the right to defend one’s reputation, and the public’s right to express their opinions or speak out on behalf of the public interest.
“We may think we have to only pick one alternative – meaning that if we protect someone’s reputation, we have to abandon freedom of expression,” she said. “In many cases, we can protect both rights.”
Shaming as a last resort
Manit also insists he will continue to use public shaming and social pressure to push for changes in disability rights, despite the risk of future libel lawsuits, simply because there was no other way.
Even successful legal actions in the past brought no timely changes. Exhibit A: Bangkok’s Skytrain stations, many of which still lack elevator access for wheelchair users. Manit helped spearhead a lawsuit against City Hall and won the case in a landmark ruling back in 2015, when the court ordered elevators to be installed at every BTS station within one year.
But seven years later, 18 stations have yet to comply with the court order, with virtually zero legal repercussions.
“You know that in this country, if there is no shaming, there is no solution,” Manit said. “This country is driven forward by shaming. It’s the national character. That’s why I think shaming is still the most effective way to get things done.” He added in English, “This is Thailand.”
Manit, in the white shirt, listens to the court verdict in January 2015 that ordered the BTS to build elevators at all of its stations.
Nalutporn from ThisAble.Me said even though Manit has tried conciliatory approaches in the past, like negotiating with the authorities and pushing for laws to better protect disability rights, those efforts often fail to make tangible differences.
“For Saba, shaming is like the last resort that he can use,” Nalutporn said.
“I think the case of Saba being sued for libel has created quite a bit of interest in disability circles,” she added, using Manit’s nickname. “I think it will lead to questions over the safety of activists who come out to take up this fight in the future.”
Ironically enough, Manit said he was surprised to learn that even the courthouse – the very heart of Thailand’s justice system – was not equipped to accommodate wheelchair users: the main entrance to the court has no ramp, the floor where the courtrooms are located has no disabled restroom, and the elevators are not ideal for wheelchair users.
As he discovered, the holding cell he was put in wasn’t designed for a wheelchair user either.
“When I needed to pee, how could I do it? The urinal is in the open air. You must climb up a few steps and stand there and pee,” Manit said. “So when I needed to use the bathroom, I told the guards: brothers, I need to pee, I can’t just stand and pee like that! The guards were gobsmacked. What to do? But they were very nice. It was a great experience in my life.”
Manit’s next court appointment is set for May 30.