When Donald Trump and his wife Melania hosted Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha at the White House in October, he gave legitimacy to a dictator who seized power in a 2014 coup, and who retains power through suppression of dissent and summary justice.
Prayuth is, in short, exactly the sort of leader that Trump tends to admire.
Thailand is a country where the generals are in charge, dissent from the press is minimal, and public demonstrations of patriotism, such as standing for the national anthem, are mandatory. Prayuth uses the antiquated Lese Majeste law, which imposes severe penalties on those who show disrespect toward the royal family.
Thailand is a country where the generals are in charge, dissent from the press is minimal, and public demonstrations of patriotism, such as standing for the national anthem, are mandatory.
Among the most notable targets of this law is Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, one of the leaders of a group of student dissidents called the Dao Din (“stars of the earth”). He was arrested in August 2016 for handing out leaflets encouraging people to vote against the new constitution. And then in December of last year, he was arrested and imprisoned for sharing a link to a BBC biography of new king Vajiralongkorn on Facebook.
“Pai’s rights were violated from the beginning,” Nuttaa Mahattana, who has led the campaign to have Pai released, told me recently. “He was denied bail and his trial was to be held in secret.”
According to Mahattana, authorities led Pai to believe that if he pled guilty he would be sentenced to just three years, halved to one-and-a-half for his co-operation. But at his sentencing in mid-August, Pai was given five years, reduced to two and a half.
The Lese Majeste law has been in place since 1908, but has seldom been used. Since Prayuth seized power three years ago, however, it has been used to bring more than 100 prosecutions for sentences of up to thirty-five years. Most of these cases have been brought against political activists.
The law, Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code, says anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent” can be sentenced to between three and fifteen years in prison. And the sentence is per offense, so for example a series of Facebook posts would carry a potential fifteen-year sentence for each one.
Another outspoken critic of the government who fell foul of Article 112 is Prawet Prapanukul, a fifty-seven-year-old civil rights lawyer in Bangkok. He is facing up to 150 years in prison for Facebook posts deemed to be derogatory to the royal family. It was not clear what Prawet had actually said, as Article 112 prevents the sharing or discussion of these posts on any forum. But in one post, sources told me, Prawet questioned the neutrality of the courts and whether they were able to act with impartiality in Lese Majeste cases, as they are ruling in the name of the king.
Prawet, perceiving that the odds are stacked against him, dismissed his lawyer and is refusing to participate in his defense, saying he does not expect the process to be fair. He has declared that he is ready to die in jail, and that his main aim now is to highlight the injustice of the law, with the help of activists like Mahattana and human rights organizations.
The road will be a long one for Pai and Prawet. The regime’s use of laws like Lese Majeste has left Thailand without dissident opposition. Critics of the government are hampered by another law, in place since 2014, that bans the assembly of more than five people. A climate of fear has developed.
Nuttaa Mahattana is one of the few willing to speak up, using her celebrity as a TV presenter to highlight the injustice of Lese Majeste victims like Pai. “People know me and I’m in Bangkok,” she told me. “That keeps me safe. But if I’d done the same thing in another province, I would not be talking to you now. I would be in jail already.”
Prawet’s first case will not be heard until May 2018. His supporters are trying to keep his story in the public eye, while they work to persuade more Thai people that love for the royal family does not need to include the suppression of dissenting opinions.