BANGKOK — Two theater activists were sentenced to two years and six months in prison today for putting on a play about a fictional kingdom that judges said "insulted" the Thai monarchy.
Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and Porntip Mankong, 26, were arrested last August on charges of lese majeste for their role in "The Wolf Bride," a play performed at Thammasat University nearly a year earlier. The play was put on to commemorate the anniversaries of pro-democracy rallies in Thailand in October 1973 and 1976.
Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and Porntip Mankong, 26, at court on 23 Feb 2015.
Patiwat, a fifth year student at Khon Kaen University, acted in the play, while Pornthip helped coordinate the production and played a small role. The play was organized by the now-defunct Prakai Fai Karn Lakorn activist group.
"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."
After the verdict was read family members of the two defendants cried and embraced the two activists. Patiwat and Porntip looked calm throughout the session.
Pawinee Chumsri, a member of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Center, said she believes the two defendants will not appeal the verdict.
"I have talked to the two defendants and their parents about their strategy to fight the case all along, and how pleading guilty would benefit their situation," Pawinee said. "The two defendants agreed, so they pleaded guilty in order to make the case end quickly."
Under Thailand’s lese majeste law – the harshest in the world – insulting the monarchy is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Although the letter of the law only specifically covers the King, Queen, Heir-Apparent, and Regent, in practice the legislation is used to punish criticism of any aspect of the monarchy.
The law has prevented media from publishing further details of the play, as quoting lese majeste content is considered grounds for prosecution.
After seizing power last May, Thailand’s military junta has stepped up prosecution of lese majeste offenders, drawing criticism from human rights groups who say the law infringes on free speech and is used to silence political dissent.
“The imprisonment of the two “Wolf Bride” play activists is yet another serious blow to freedom of expression in Thailand and another dark mark on Thailand’s already battered international reputation," said Human Rights Watch's Asia Director Brad Adams on Monday.
According to judges, Patiwat and Porntip's sentence was reduced from 5 years because they plead guilty to the charges. As is common with lese majeste supsects, the pair was repeatedly denied bail in the six months between their arrest and the court ruling on Monday.
Around a dozen people showed up at the court today to show support for the pair. The group sang "Starlight of Faith," a popular song among left-wing Thai activists, and flashed the forbidden anti-coup three-finger salute as security officers drove Patiwat and Porntip back to prison.
Police are reportedly searching for at least six other people involved in the play, several of whom have already fled the country.