BANGKOK — Preecha Kaewbanpaew was crossing into Laos for a sightseeing trip with a group of retired friends Saturday when the 77-year-old former teacher was hit with surprising news: He was wanted by a military tribunal on a charge of sedition.
As the Bangkok man would later learn, the charge stemmed from a bag of McDonald’s food and some flowers given eight months earlier to an activist protesting against the military government.
“I was sure I was innocent. I didn’t have any intention to cause sedition,” Preecha said of his reaction to being arrested at the border. “I just wasn’t aware of the consequences.”
Back in March, Preecha said he went to watch protesters walk along Ratchadamnoen Avenue but did not participate. That day a group called Resistant Citizen was defying a junta ban by walking at locations around Bangkok to call attention to state suppression of speech and rights.
It was there, Preecha said, that he handed some flowers to Pansak Srithep at the behest of a woman present.
Preecha now faces seven years in prison if convicted. He was placed in detention in Bangkok for two days after his arrest before the military court released him Monday on a 150,000-baht bond, as well as his Government Savings Bank lottery account and 1,000 baht.
A volunteer lawyer representing Preecha from Free Thai Legal Aid said only two lines in the warrant involved Preecha , while the rest concerned those involved in the March protest.
The charges, he said, were exaggerated.
“It said Mr.Preecha Kaewbanpaew gave flowers and a bag of food from McDonald’s to Pansak Srithep, and then went into the detail about how the protest was arranged by a group instigating sedition,” said Winyat Chartmontri, who has been representing a number of anti-coup activists.
Pansak Srithep, leader of anti-coup group Resistant Citizen, is handed flowers by supporters during a protest march on March 15. Photo : Resistant Citizen / Facebook
The old man said he attended the March event alone, and after giving the flowers and food to Pansak, two men approached him. The first identified himself as a news reporter and asked him why he was there. The second declared himself to be an plainclothes detective and asked for his personal information and phone number.
“He asked for my full name and address, but I refused to give it. He then asked for my mobile number, saying he would not use it to harm me. He just wanted to keep in touch in case there are any activities next time,” said Preecha. “So I finally gave only my number to him to assure him of my sincerity.”
The warrant issued March 17 said Preecha’s participation at the anti-junta event amounted to sedition under Section 116 of the Penal Code.
Back at his home Tuesday in the capital’s Bangkok Yai district, Preecha told his family not to worry.
“I did nothing wrong, I just walked along the road,” he said. “I have the right to walk.”
One of the first orders issued after the May 2014 coup d’etat was that all cases of sedition, treason and defaming the monarchy be sent to military courts, as they are said to affect national security. Defendant have no right of appeal a military tribunal’s verdict.
Correction: An earlier headline for this story identified the charge under Section 116 of the Penal Code as treason, it is more accurately considered sedition. Seditious acts are those taken against a lawful authority.