Thai court jails theater activists for lese majeste

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 25, 2015

Thailand’s courts are continuing to jail people under the lèse majesté law, as two young students have been sentenced to two and a half years in prison for allegedly insulting the monarchy in a theater play. The conviction shows yet again the draconian law is still thriving and even more so under the current military junta.

Dozens of students outside the Criminal Court in Bangkok began to sing when Patiwat “Bank” Saraiyaem (23 years old) and Porntip “Golf” Mankong (26) were taken out of the building (see video below) in shackles and back into their prisons after the judges handed down their sentences: five years in prison, reduced to two and a half. Both students were found guilty of allegedly violating the lèse majesté law by seemingly insulting the monarchy with a theater production.

The draconian lèse majesté law, Article 112 of the Criminal Code, states that it is a criminal offense to “defame, insult or threaten” the king, queen, heir to the throne or regent. If convicted, the accused can face up to 15 years in prison. The law also prohibits media and anyone else from citing or quoting the details of the offense, as this also constitutes a violation of the law itself.

Use (or rather abuse) of the law has been constantly on the rise for most of the past decade, but has seen a sharp increase since the military coup last May. One of the first orders by the military junta was to transfer jurisdiction of such cases to a military court, as martial law remains since the coup.

Patiwat and Porntip – respectively, a student until his suspension at Khon Kaen University because of the trial, and a recent graduate – were part of the “Prakai Fai” (literally Sparking Fire) activist theater group and staged the play “The Wolf’s Bride” (“เจ้าสาวหมาป่า” in Thai) at Bangkok’s Thammasat University in 2013, which was the scene of the student-led pro-democracy rallies and its bloody military crackdown in 1973 and 1976.

The play itself is set in a fictional kingdom about a fictional king and his fictional advisor. Nevertheless, its contents (which we cannot elaborate further upon for the aforementioned reasons), were still deemed enough to defame the actual Thai monarchy. Patiwat (who acted in the play) and Porntip (who primarily co-ordinated the production) were arrested last August, while many others of the group have fled Thailand fearing they would be targeted as well.

The fact that a work of fiction is at the center of the offense shows not only the problematic flexible interpretation of the law by the authorities of what constitutes lèse majesté and what doesn’t, it also bears some similarities of the case of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk. The veteran labor activist was sentenced to 11 years for merely editing political essays – that were written by somebody else – which were at best vague allusions to the royal family. He has been incarcerated (including his detention before the trial) since April 2011 and has been denied bail 16 times so far.

The two accused students have been denied bail six times as well, as have most other lèse majesté suspects. Both defendants have previously pleaded guilty, which doesn’t necessarily mean they acknowledge the crime, as this is a standard procedure to reduce the sentence. Also, like many other sentenced lèse majesté prisoners, it seems unlikely that the two will be appealing the verdict, which would leave a royal pardon the only legal avenue to shorten the prison term.

The judges reasoned their verdict and sentencing as following:

“Although the defendants have never committed previous crimes, their action – performing the play in an auditorium at Thammasat University – was an act of defamation and insult in front of numerous people,” said a judge at Ratchada Criminal Court in Bangkok. “Moreover, it was disseminated on many websites, causing damage to the monarchy, which is revered by all Thais. Such action is a grave crime that warrants no suspension of the punishment.”

Theater Activists Jailed Over Satirical Play About Monarchy“, Khaosod English, February 23, 2015

The judge’s assumption that the offenses in that theater play were insulting to the monarchy despite being “revered by all Thais”, underlines “the contradictory task of trying to argue how inflammatory the slanderous remarks are (…) while at the same time maintaining that the words have no such effect on them,” as academic and lèse majesté expert David Streckfuss wrote once (read here).

In fact, this contradiction has reached new (and absurd, if it wasn’t so serious) lows under the current military government, which is hunting for lèse majesté suspects and dissidents alike with vigorous zeal – especially an estimated 40 suspects that have fled abroad.

A change for the better in Thailand is not in sight with the authoritarian military junta at the helm. But dissent is still alive, which is currently mostly upheld by student activists and public displays of resistance still do occur (as seen recently last Valentine’s Day), only to be immediately shut down by the skittish authorities.

Porntip’s and Patiwat’s family members broke down in tears after the verdict was read out, as the dozens of supporters were waiting downstairs at the exit of the Criminal Court in Bangkok and started singing “The Faith Of Starlight” (“แสงดาวแห่งศรัทธา” in Thai), a song written by Thai leftist intellectual Chit Phumisak and popularized as a protest anthem by the pro-democracy student activists in the 1970s, which ended with the words:

ขอเยาะเย้ย ทุกข์ยากขวากหนามลำเค็ญ / คนยังคง ยืนเด่นโดยท้าทาย / แม้นผืนฟ้า มืดดับเดือนลับมลาย / ดาวยังพราย ศรัทธาเย้ยฟ้าดิน / ดาวยังพราย อยู่จนฟ้ารุ่งราง

May I mock the miserable thorns of poverty / the people are still standing defiantly / and even the skies turn dark and the moon vanishes forever / the stars are still shining, the faith of the starlight / the stars are still shining, until heaven is obscured

As the choir kept chanting, the pair were put in a transport van. Patiwat “Bank” Saraiyaem and Porntip “Golf” Mankong – the two thespians, now prisoners – calmly and defiantly flashed the three-finger-salute from “The Hunger Games” movies (and declared illegal by the military junta) as the van darted out of the garage to drive them to their prisons.

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