Thai junta hunts down lèse majesté fugitives abroad

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 15, 2015

The hunt for people suspected of breaking Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law continues, with the military junta even looking to extradite those who have fled abroad while ultra-royalist vigilantism at home reaches a new absurd low.

After months on the run, Ekapop Luara seems have to found asylum, but it is a long way from home and it remains to be seen if he will ever return to Thailand. Nevertheless, he uploaded a picture on his Facebook account showing his and his girlfriend’s new New Zealand passports.

The military coup of May 22, 2014 caused the 23-year-old Thai student, also known as Tang Acheewa, and his partner to flee Thailand, as the military junta rounded up many people associated with the former government and those perceived to be supporters. Hundreds were summoned and temporarily detained, and many have been charged in the intervening months, over 20 of them with the draconian lèse majesté law.

Article 112 of the Criminal Code punishes defamation of the King, Queen, Heir Apparent and Regent with a maximum 15 years prison sentence, but the law has been used more vigorously, practically silencing any debate on the Thai monarchy. One of the first orders during the coup was to transfer jurisdiction of these cases to a military court. Ekapop’s alleged offense dates back to late 2013, when he allegedly insulted the monarchy at a red shirt rally and was subject of an arrest warrant shortly after that.

Ekapop and his girlfriend fled to Cambodia first and stayed for months, under the protection of the United Nation’s refugee agency UNHCR. They regularly changed location as the neighboring country isn’t entirely a safe haven, especially after the apparent rapprochement of Phnom Penh with the Thai military junta and rumors to forcefully return Ekapop to Thailand. That has not stopped him from constantly mocking the Thai authorities on his Facebook account, which is currently deactivated.

The fact that the fugitive couple suddenly popped up in New Zealand has resulted in some diplomatic tensions back in Bangkok:

Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry summoned the charge d’affaires at New Zealand’s Bangkok Embassy on Tuesday to “express its concerns”.

Thai spokesman Sek Wannamethee said Thailand had asked New Zealand officials to clarify Mr Ekaphop’s refugee status.

“Mr Ekaphop is exploiting his status granted by the New Zealand Government to conduct political activities which have reverse impact on Thailand’s security,” he said.

“Such a movement is considered an obstacle to the peace-building process and the good relationship between both countries. Therefore, Thailand requested New Zealand to revoke his status in order to stop his actions against the law.”

Thailand wants refugee returned”, New Zealand Herald, January 8, 2015

As of writing, New Zealand officials remain tight-lipped on the matter.

The junta’s reaction is just the latest in a series of increased efforts to extradite numerous Thais accused of lèse majesté that have fled abroad. Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan looks to be leading the hunt:

Gen Prawit, who is in charge of security affairs, said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha wants all fugitives in lese majeste cases who have fled abroad, including Thammasat University history lecturer Somsak Jeamteerasakul, to return and fight the cases.

He declined to reveal how many suspects are on the government’s wanted list and in which countries these suspects are believed to be hiding.

Gen Prawit, who is also defence minister and deputy chairman of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said some of those countries do not have an extradition treaty with Thailand, or a lese majeste law, which causes problems.

What Thailand can do is ask for cooperation from those countries. Interpol has also been asked for help in extraditing these suspects, he added.

Govt pursues lese majeste suspects overseas”, Bangkok Post, December 28, 2014

Somsak Jeamteerasakul has been a vocal critic against the lèse majesté law and for that has been attacked both verbally and physically by ultra-royalists and in 2013 was hit with a lèse majesté complaint filed by none other than the army itself. In late November 2014, after months of silence and not responding to an army summons, he reappeared on Facebook with a message hinting that he had left Thailand.

The junta leader, former army chief and current Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has promised a ”fair trial” for those coming home voluntarily. However, use (or rather abuse) of the lèse majesté law has been rampant since the coup, utilized to silence dissidents (not to mention the online surveillance and media censorship), as evident by a recent pledge of the Thai police to speed up the investigations of such cases.

The recent establishment of an inter-departmental and inter-ministerial committee to find every possible way to extradite lèse majesté suspects from abroad shows a certain frustration among the Thai authorities who are not only unable to get them back to Thailand within certain legal boundaries, but are also struggling also to convince other countries that the junta is justified to hunting them down.

It must be clear to everybody involved – especially those in the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs – that it is futile to pursue lèse majesté suspects that have already left the country, no matter what explanation they use. So, why are Thai officials are going about everything involving lèse majesté so overzealously? One simple and short answer would be that it shows to the public that the authorities are working hard to ensure the law is upheld and the suspects are being hunted – regardless of yielding any actual tangible results. Whether or not the intentions behind those efforts are sincere is a different matter.

However, this doesn’t prevent ultra-royalists from rampaging against their perceived enemies and anybody who helps them:

After the report on the New Zealand Herald spread across social media, aided by a translation to Thai that appeared on the right-wing Thai newspaper Naew Na, a number of royalists in Thailand have started calling for a “boycott” of the UNHCR for allegedly helping the “anti-monarchy” suspect.

The campaign, which appears to be coordinated by several Facebook pages, has also urged all Thais to refrain from donating to the UN agency.

Thai Royalists Call For Boycott of UN Refugee Agency”, Khaosod English, January 10, 2015

This kind of extreme Thai royalist witch hunt is nothing new. This week the Facebook page of the UNHCR’s Thailand office was bombarded with profanity-filled threats of boycott and even violence (i.e. one angry user pledged to “destroy the [UNHCR] donation booths and slap the staff! **** UNHCR Thailand!”), so much so that the social media profiles of UNHCR Thailand have been offline since Wednesday morning. Sources have independently told Siam Voices that the accounts were taken down for ”maintenance,” but don’t know when they will return and also could not answer if this was scheduled.