Saturday, June 12

Thailand Targets Pro-Democracy Protesters in Sweeping Legal Dragnet

BANGKOK — A 16-year-old boy is facing possible jail time for parading down a makeshift catwalk in a crop top that evoked Thailand’s king. An actress stands accused of breaking the law by cheering on and delivering spicy takeout to hungry members of the country’s protest movement.

And another offender has been informed that selling a calendar decorated with a rubber duck could earn him 15 years in prison.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Thailand’s student-organized protests last year to demand reforms to the government and monarchy. But the democracy movement, armed with little more than duck-shaped pool floats to use as shields against water cannons, is now battling a serious threat to its mission: a raft of criminal prosecutions in recent weeks that could end with rally leaders and ordinary protesters alike locked up for decades.

After allowing the street rallies to continue largely unimpeded for months, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand appears to have lost patience, threatening to use “all laws and all articles” against the dissenters. Since November dozens of protesters have been accused of breaching a feared lèse-majesté law that punishes those who insult senior members of the royal family with jail time, according to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Use of the law had been suspended for nearly three years, and the reintroduction of its sweeping dragnet has earned Thailand the condemnation of the United Nations human rights agency.

Several young protesters have as many charges laid against them as years they have been alive, even as the discontent that drove the street rallies remains unaddressed. Some were seized by security forces in the middle of the night and hauled to police stations.

“They look at the protesters as the enemy,” said Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, one of the rally organizers, referring to the government’s mounting legal campaign against democracy advocates. “If they continue to use this method, the protests will keep growing, and it will never end.”

The demands have not been met, nor are they likely to be taken seriously by the political establishment. Mr. Prayuth is still in charge. The king, one of the world’s richest, continues to float above the national charter.

Efforts to overhaul the Constitution have sputtered in Parliament, hampered by a Senate that is entirely unelected, a feature of the very same military-drafted charter that the protesters want changed.

“Reforming the monarchy, this will not happen,” said Pareena Kraikupt, a lawmaker for the governing Palang Pracharat party. “Thailand has a king who is beloved and most respected with all our lives.”

Ms. Pareena cautioned against ditching the Thai practice of venerating the monarchy. She made a comparison to France, where she said a push to breach certain Muslim traditions had created the conditions for violence.

“It’s a tradition, culture,” Ms. Pareena said. “Like with Muslims, you touch Allah, then look at France, you have a mass shooting and the journalists were killed. You have to understand the traditions of each group of people.”

On Friday, a lawmaker from Ms. Pareena’s party threatened to pursue lèse-majesté complaints against opposition members of Parliament who had added references to the monarchy to a motion to censure the prime minister.

But as the protests grew in force last year, speaker after speaker broke the royal taboo, directly questioning why a constitutional monarchy has a king who is not strictly bound by the Constitution. By the fall, protesters felt emboldened enough to scrawl graffiti mocking the king on the streets of Bangkok. A daring few wore crop tops, an article of clothing that the king, 68, has been photographed wearing in Europe. Some such images have been blocked by Thai internet censors.

“The youth, in speaking out about the monarchy, are making a wager against the past: Thailand has changed and all public institutions, including the monarchy, are open to public criticism and scrutiny,” said David Streckfuss, a historian who has studied the application of lèse-majesté in Thailand.

The spray-painted messages addressed the monarch’s intricate personal life — four wives, several disinherited children and a mistress who appears increasingly by his side at public events — as well as his moves to build up the palace’s power by consolidating control over military regiments and royal finances.

Protesters asked why the king has spent much of his reign living in luxury in Germany, surrounded by a retinue of attendants, while Thais suffer from the economic effects of the coronavirus. The awarding of a vaccine-making contract to a company linked to the king has also prompted questions about transparency.

“The monarchy has been with the Thai people for generations, and it is the root of Thai culture,” said Ms. Patsaravalee, the university student facing lèse-majesté accusations. “But if one day the thing that unites the hearts of the Thai people creates a bad image of the country, can we stand it? It is one of the people’s duties to speak up and reform it.”

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