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A gesture meant to honour a dead political exile ballooned into a larger question about whether it is appropriate to campaign against the royal defamation law at events unrelated to politics.

An open-air film screening initiated by Bangkok Governor Chadchart Sittipunt turned sour last week when a group of activists at the event said they were blocked from displaying balloons with a slogan calling for abolition of the royal defamation law. 

An activist with a sign opposing Section 112, or the royal defamation law, in Bangkok on July 13, 2022. 

The confrontation on Friday led some critics of the draconian law to accuse the organizers of censoring their campaign at a time when the authorities are stepping up their crackdown on public discussion of the monarchy, while the event hosts insisted they were misinformed about the stunt. 

It also highlights differences within progressive circles, pitting those in favour of raising the royal defamation issue at all public venues against those who fear that doing so will only invite trouble. 

One of the campaigners behind the balloons, which bear the slogan “Abolish 112,” a reference to the royal defamation law, acknowledged in an interview with Prachatai English that some miscommunication was involved, but she maintained that speaking out against the law was an exercise of free speech. 

“When balloons are treated like instruments of a crime, it looks really ridiculous,” Tanruthai “Pim” Thanrut, who described herself as an independent activist, said on Monday. “It shows that this is what dictatorial power could do to people. It drove people to be this sensitive and treat the slogan ‘Abolish 112’ like some kind of a taboo.”

She went on, “Strictly speaking, there’s no provision in any law that makes calling for abolition of Section 112 unlawful.” 

Any remarks deemed to be offensive to members of the Royal Family are punishable by up to 15 years in prison under Section 112 of the Criminal Code. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights report that at least 205 people have been charged with the offense since November 2020. Some face increasingly absurd charges; in May, an activist was arrested for his speeches about past kings who lived 200 years ago. 

Arguments over the balloons broke out between Tanruthai’s group and organizers of Friday’s screening of the 2001 romance-comedy film “Transistor Love Story,” which was held at a community centre in Khlong Toei District. The event is part of an initiative by Governor Chadchart to revive the practice of open-air movies. Similar screenings have been held at many parks and plazas around Bangkok in recent weeks. 

Videos of the confrontation show the activists trying to bring the balloons into the event, over the objections of the staff. Police were called. Emotions soon flared. The activists and organizers yelled at each other – the former said they were being censored, the latter that the balloons were inappropriate. Some people in the crowd also booed the campaigners and told them to leave. 

The activists eventually left the venue, taking their balloons and other materials about the royal defamation law with them. 

Word and images of the quarrel soon spread on social media over the weekend, with many leading activists and politicos weighing in. 

“So you can’t hand out balloons with the words ‘Abolish 112’ at a movie screening?” monarchy critic Somsak Jeamteerasakul wrote online from his exile in France. “Are they afraid that the event will have too much politics?”

Tanruthai said her group chose to hold their anti-lèse majesté campaign at the screening of “Transistor Love Story” because the movie was based on the novel of the same name by Wat Wanlayangkoon, a political dissident who died in exile in France earlier this year aged 67. Wat, who fled Thailand after the military staged a coup in 2014, often spoke out against the use of lèse majesté. 

“We weren’t doing it on behalf of any group in particular. We’re just friends of Khun Wat,” Tanruthai said, adding that the activists knew each other from an event held in memory of Wat in Bangkok.  

Writing on Facebook, Move Forward Party MP Amarat Chokepamitkul said she found it ironic that activists campaigning against the royal defamation law were barred from paying tribute to Wat and his political ideas at an event where his work was to be shown on the screen. 

“I think [the organizers] should have been more flexible as a show of respect for the author who owned the original work of the film that was screened on that day,” Amarat wrote. “He had to flee from home and died in a foreign country because of this law.”

But others hit back that the film screening, an event catering to families in the low-income community of Khlong Toey, was hardly suitable for political proselytizing.

“The organizers … probably didn’t want a leisure activity of the Bangkok city administration to be involved in politics, especially if it concerns the monarchy. The event might be exploited as a tool of some people,” a pro-monarchy Facebook page called The Mettad wrote. 

“And the group of people who want to pay tribute to Wat Wanlayangkoon, the author behind the film ‘Transistor Love Story’ didn’t need to bring up only the issue of abolishing 112, because there are many other topics about Wat that could have been picked,” the page continued. “It’s only because one group of people want to hijack the event to be a tool for campaigning for abolition of Section 112.”

A member of Governor Chadchart’s publicity team responsible for the film screening also said that the event was meant to bring happiness to the local residents, without mentioning the debate over the balloons or the scuffle. 

“I just want to screen a fun movie for everyone to see,” Thanathat Manacharoen wrote on Facebook. “I want to see their smiles. I want to hear the applause when the movie is over.” 

Censorship or miscommunication? 

Despite large street protests calling for reform of the monarchy that broke out in 2020, discussion of the Royal Family and the royal defamation law remains a taboo, especially in public settings.   

Activists who held protests against the royal defamation law have been arrested, and some sent to jail under the law they were protesting against. They include Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom and Nutthanit “Baipor” Duangmusit, two campaigners currently in pre-trial detention for staging public surveys asking passers-by about their opinion on monarchy reforms. 

Netiporn and Nutthanit have been on a hunger strike since early June to protest their detention, their lawyer said. The pair suffered severe stomach pains and fatigue during a court session on Monday, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Their lawyers urged the court to release them on bail, citing their health. The court on Tuesday rejected that request. 

But some organizers of the Friday’s film screening bridled at the accusation that they tried to censor discussion about the royal defamation law and blamed the incident on poor communication from the activists.

A Facebook user who identified herself as one of the staff members at the screening said her team was only told by the campaigners that they would hold activities in Wat’s memory, but she was never informed about the balloons with a political slogan. 

When they learned about the message, the organizers feared that allowing the balloons to be handed out at the event would endanger some of the staff, which include pro-democracy demonstrators who have been released on bail on the condition that they do not engage in political gatherings.

“Personally, I think campaigning to abolish 112 is something that can be done, and I support that,” Ktaya Boonyaratana explained on Facebook. “But at the same time, I believe that when we do something, we should also protect people who work with us, and people who may be affected by our actions.

“As for the incident that happened, I acknowledge that the way I managed it may disappoint some people. It will serve as a lesson for me for future endeavours, and I will be more careful in my work.”

In an interview, Tanruthai, the activist who prepared the balloons, said she asked for and received permission from the organizers to hold several activities to honour Wat’s memory, like a candlelit vigil and speeches at the end of the screening. Tanruthai conceded that she did not inform the organizers about the balloons and their message against Article 112. 

“They didn’t ask us about any of the details of the materials we were going to bring,” she said.  

The activist also said she has apologized to the organizers after the incident, but insisted that the dispute should have been handled in a more professional manner. 

“When I organized protests, there were incidents like this too. Sometimes a speaker on the stage had a different political opinion, and they would give speeches in a way that went against what we planned,” Tanruthai said. “But we didn’t drag them down from the stage. We solved the problem by letting them speak what they had to say, then when it was our turn to speak, we told the audience what we wanted to say.”

She added, “I wish they had been more calm when they dealt with us, instead of using emotion or booting us out.”

City Hall’s next open-air film screening will take place on Thursday at Benjakitti Park, next to MRT Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre. It will feature “Citizen Dog,” a 2004 romance with a touch of surrealism, directed by Wisit Sasanatieng. 

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