In late March, I took an oath and stood as a defense witness in front of three presiding judges at the Criminal Court in one of the rarest criminal cases in Thailand.
Five people, including a well-known activist Ekachai Hongkangwan and Mahidol University student leader Francis Bunkueanun Paothong, are on trial for attempting to harm the freedom of Her Majesty the Queen on October 14, 2020.
Basically, they were accused of blocking the Queen’s motorcade in front of the Government House shortly after 5pm on that day. The maximum punishment under the law, Article 110 of the Criminal Code, is life imprisonment. All told, the defense attorney from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, May Poonsukcharoen, told me there has been no record of any previous invocation of the law so this might very well be the first-time people are on trial under the law.
The five were among the 200 or so monarchy-reform protesters on the streets on that day. They pushed ahead of the larger and main group of demonstrators, numbering in thousands, who were still behind at Nang Lerng Intersection, some five minutes’ walk behind. The front-line protesters found themselves in front of the Government House, the office of the Prime Minister, and no one had any clue a royal motorcade was soon to approach. This is what I told the judges.
As a defense witness, I stressed to the judges that the circumstances were most unusual on that late afternoon. BTW, I was asked to stand as a witness because on that fateful day, I and my colleague, Tappanai Boonbandit, were there in front of the Government House covering the event live on Facebook for Khaosod English.
A 17-minute clip from a longer Facebook Live footage was presented to the court by the defense attorney as evidence to prove that neither Ekachai nor Francis or the three others by any chance had or intended to hold the royal motorcade against Her Majesty’s will.
Back to my testimony, I noted that there was no warning at all by any of the hundreds of police officers deployed in the area that a royal motorcade will soon pass Phitsanulok Road.
Normally, police wearing formal uniform will arrive on site to ensure order at the area where a royal motorcade will pass but not this time, I noted.
When suddenly the first two cars arrived, I noticed a royal insignia of the King on the side of the vehicles and yet there was still no announcement by any of the officers. Probably not all protesters had seen it because you have to be on the side of the vehicles to see the emblem on the cars’ doors.
Soon after, dozens of police began forming themselves into a human wall, four-to-five men deep, and started to push the protesters back. Behind these police officers was the vintage beige Rolls-Royce with the Queen and HRH Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti on the back seats.
I only saw the two passengers after the push by police and prior to that moment, most protesters on the streets would have little or no clue that the Queen’s limousine was wafting towards their direction but would have thought the police officers were simply trying to disperse them from the front of the Government House and so they got upset.
When the protesters finally saw with their very own eyes that it was the Queen’s vehicle wanting to pass, they did not try to stop the motorcade although some were visibly unhappy about the situation and some shouted.
“Why was there no announcement or warning in advance? Why did the police seem so relaxed and clueless until the very moment the vehicle approached?” I mentioned it to the judges.
The most senior of the three judges then asked me why I think that was the case. I then replied saying it is possible that someone may have wanted the situation to escalate into violence so martial law could be declared, thus justifying another period of full-fledged dictatorship.
“If that happened there wouldn’t be a general election this May,” I told the judges.
For the record, PM Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has declared a short-lived severe state of emergency before dawn of the following day. The defense lawyer also told me after I testified that a police witness also told the court he did not know about the coming royal motorcade until the very last minute.
Postscript: The verdict will be announced on June 28.