BANGKOK — Testimony began Friday in the trial of a prominent student dissident’s mother who faces up to 20 years in prison for writing the word “yeah” in a Facebook conversation about the country’s monarchy.
Domestic worker Patnaree Chankij is accused of insulting the monarchy, a crime known as lese majeste for which she could serve three to 15 years in prison. She is also charged with offenses under the Computer Crimes Act, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. She has pleaded innocent to all charges. Friday’s first and only witness, an army officer who filed the complaint against her, laid out the details of the prosecution’s case.
Critics believe the real purpose of the case is to pressure her son, Siriwit Seritiwat, or “Ja New,” who is one of the most outspoken activists against the military junta that overthrew a democratically elected government in a coup in 2014.
The case arose out of an online chat last year in which the other participant criticized the monarchy. At the end of the conversation Patnaree wrote the word “ja,” a colloquial term meaning “yeah” or “OK,” which is often taken to indicate acknowledgement rather than agreement. In January a man was sentenced to 11 years and 4 months in prison for his part in the conversation.
Heeding her lawyer’s advice, Patnaree, 41, is careful what she says about her case, but speaking earlier this week, her son at her side, she denied she had any intention to join in or endorse criticism of the monarchy in the conversation.
“I am fighting this charge to prove my innocence,” she told The Associated Press. “My intention, my thought and the text that I wrote have already shown that I had no such idea (to defame the monarchy).”
Her son said he was the government’s real target.
“First they tried telling my family to get me to stop taking part in activities,” Ja New said. “I insisted I wouldn’t stop. So in the end they’ve had to find some other way to stop me. That’s why we’ve ended up here.”
This week the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed its concern over a more than doubling of lese majeste cases since the military takeover, a rise that shows no sign of slackening since the accession late last year of King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkunan. It also said it was deeply troubled by how few people are acquitted and by the courts’ persistence in handing down what it called “disproportionate sentences.”
Supporters of the lese majeste law argue that the monarchy is a sacred pillar of Thai society and must be protected at all costs. Critics of the measure say it is used as a weapon to silence dissent.