Royal , A 19-year-old pro-democracy activist in Bangkok was sentenced to one year in prison for wearing a crop top in 2020—or, more specifically, for mocking Thailand’s eminently mockworthy yet notoriously unmockable King Maha Vajiralongkorn, in part by wearing a crop top.
The adolescent, known by the pseudonym Sainam, is one of at least 253 people charged in the last three years with violating Section 112 of the country’s criminal code, which punishes criticisms of the monarchy with up to 15 years in prison and has been systematically used to quell political dissent, according to rights groups.
“Sainam’s case,” says Akarachai Chaimaneekarakate, an advocacy associate at Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which tracks and assists those facing political persecution, “is yet another piece of evidence that points towards Thailand’s shrinking civic space.”
The latest sentencing comes as hopes for an end to the sweeping royal defamation prosecutions fade.
Thailand’s royal family has recently come under increasing public scrutiny, most notably during pro-democracy protests in 2020 and 2021. While the demonstrations were initially aimed at the military-aligned government, which seized power in 2014 and has maintained its rule through a multi-party coalition, they quickly expanded to target the country’s long-untouchable monarchy.
Building on the momentum of this movement, Pita Limjaroenrat’s progressive Move Forward Party emerged as the largest winner of Thailand’s general election in May, promising to reform the country’s military-backed and pro-monarchy political institutions, including amending the contentious lèse-majesté law.
However, Royal Pita’s bid for Prime Minister was thwarted by Thailand’s conservative political establishment. His nomination for the top job fell short of the required support from the country’s junta-appointed Senate last week, and he was barred from being renominated this week. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court suspended Pita from parliament on Wednesday following allegations of election law violations.
Move Forward announced on Friday that it will take a step back to allow coalition ally, Pheu Thai. This party opposes the current military-backed rule but does not support amending Section 112, to lead the formation of the next government.
“Pita’s defeat ensures that [Section] 112 will remain in Thai law for at least the next few years, or until an election in which a pro-reform party wins an outright majority,” says Mark S. Cogan, an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Japan’s Kansai Gaidai University.
Royal Defamation Reform Prospects Dim.
Much of the parliamentary debate over Pita’s nomination for Prime Minister was centered on Section 112, with conservative forces vehemently opposing Pita’s candidature because changing the law would jeopardize the country’s political stability.
However, experts believe that the heated parliamentary debate is more about rejecting Move Forward’s broader reform-centered platform, which includes ending military conscription and implementing a minimum wage.
“People are striking against Section 112 as a way to challenge the Move Forward Party rather than the whole issue being about Section 112 per se,” says Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “It’s one of the policies that expresses Move Forward’s position on traditional institutions like the royal institution.”
Even though Pita has withdrawn from the leadership race, uncertainty looms over who will replace him as Prime Minister and the fate of Pita’s entire party.
The Constitutional Court accepted a complaint last week alleging that Move Forward’s stance on Section 112 was an attempt to destabilize the monarchy. The complaint demanded that Move Forward be dissolved. The case, along with Pita’s legal challenges, resembles Move Forward’s predecessor, the Future Forward Party, which was disbanded in 2020 due to an alleged violation of electoral rules.
The overwhelming odds stacked against Move Forward after the election have only exacerbated youth disillusionment with the political system. However, if there is a silver lining to Move Forward’s failed attempt to govern the country now, the resulting political turmoil may strengthen public support for reform in the long run, according to Cogan. Following Pita’s suspension from parliament on Wednesday, hundreds gathered in Bangkok to protest what they saw as a pro-military assault on democracy.
“Move Forward’s loss or potential dissolution is just one defeat in a changing political landscape,” Cogan says. “There will be opposition or conservative resistance, but there is ample evidence of weakness or cracks in the establishment’s hold on power.”
“Thailand’s changing demographics should help with the transition,” he says, adding that “the politically motivated younger generation is much more willing to take great risks to bring about change.”
For now, however, one of the risks appears to be the repressive lèse-majesté law. “As long as the establishment has the authority to use the law as a weapon against dissent or free expression,” Cogan says, “the frequency [of Section 112 charges] will increase,” as evidenced by the increased number of children prosecuted.
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