UN Raises Alarm Over Post-Coup Lese Majeste Cases

Redshirt demonstrators rally Sep. 19, 2013, in front of the House of Parliament in support for amendment of lese majeste law and the release of lese majeste prisoners.

BANGKOK — The recent arrest of two Thai university students for their involvement in a political play about a fictional monarch has raised the alarm of international human rights groups, including the The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Last week, the two students were charged with lese majeste, or defaming the monarchy, for their participation in the production of “The Wolf Bride,” a play performed last October at Thammasat University in Bangkok to commemorate Thailand’s 1973 pro-democracy uprising. Under Thailand's penal code, those convicted of lese majeste can face up to 15 years in prison.

In the past 24 hours, the OHCHR and the New York-based Human Rights Watch have both called the arrests evidence of the “decline of freedom of expression” in post-coup Thailand.

“The threat of the use of the lèse majesté laws adds to the chilling effects on freedom of expression observed in Thailand after the coup, and risks curbing critical debate on issues of public interest,” a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights said in a press briefing yesterday.

Both students, 23-year-old Patiwat Saraiyaem and 25-year-old Pornthip Munkong, were denied requests for a release on bail.

“For many years Thai courts have regularly refused bail to people awaiting trial for ‘insulting the monarchy,’” said Brad Adams, the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. “The systematic denial of bail for lese majeste suspects seems intended to punish them before they even go to trial.” 

After leading a coup on 22 May, the royalist leader of Thailand's junta, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has promised to persecute critics of the monarchy and strictly enforce the Kingdom's lese majeste law. According to a document reportedly obtained by Vice News, the junta went as far as listing British comedian John Oliver as a threat to the monarchy for poking fun at the Crown Prince in his late-night HBO talk show. 

Since the 22 May coup, at least fourteen new cases of lese majeste have been opened and several others from the past have been revived

In yesterday’s press briefing, a OHCHR spokesperson also cited the case of a taxi driver who was recently sentenced to two years and six months in prison for a conversation he had with a passenger in which he allegedly defamed the monarchy.

“We are concerned that more charges may be filed and that more harsh sentences may be issued in the coming weeks,” the spokesperson said.

Over the past decade, the country's lese majeste law has been frequently abused as a political weapon with Thai authorities interpreting "criticism of the monarchy" so widely that any discussion of the Royal family has become grounds for persecution.


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