BANGKOK — A Buddhist monk said he fled Thailand to avoid being charged and possibly imprisoned for his Facebook posts that referenced His Majesty the King.
Phra Panya Seesun, 39, said he left the country a month ago after police told him he would be prosecuted for his critical comments. Although police stopped short of using the infamous lese majeste law, or royal defamation – opting for a charge of cybercrime instead – the monk said he stood little chance to prove his innocence all the same.
“From what I saw on the news, no one won lese majeste cases, no matter how nonsensical the charges may be,” Phra Panya said by phone Monday. “The rulings were mostly abnormal and the interpretation ever more vague.”
Phra Panya, who is also known as Bhikku Moss, said he is currently residing in a foreign country – he wouldn’t say where, citing fears that he could end up like so many other exiles marked as critics of the monarchy who ended up dead or missing.
“I just do not want to die before my mother, who is 74,” the monk said. “If she has to come to term with her son dying before her, it would be devastating. I wouldn’t be surprised though, because those in power are capable.”
The monk said his troubles began when he criticized the appointment of the several senior monks on his Facebook from October to December 2019. His main gripe was the Sangha Act, which was amended in 2018 under the auspices of the junta at the time.
Phra Panya said he disagreed with the law because it granted His Majesty the King the power to appoint or remove key positions in the national Buddhist hierarchy, which he saw as a blurred line between the church and the state. He made clear of his objection in those Facebook posts.
“As the King now exercises the power to rule over the Sangha, he cannot avoid criticism,” Phra Panya said in the interview.
A police summons eventually landed on his temple on July 30, Phra Panya recalled, or nearly half a year since he wrote the critical comments. The document accused him of importing “false” information into the computer system that could cause unrest in the country, an offense under the Computer Crimes Act.
Due to legal concerns, Khaosod English cannot republish his comments in full. Phra Panya also said police told him before he fled Thailand that they will not charge him under the lese majeste law due to the “clemency of His Majesty the King.”
The account was confirmed by Supanut Boonsod, the monk’s pro bono attorney from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, who spoke in an interview on Monday.
“He was accused of violating the lese majeste law but police said the Compute Crimes Act will be used instead,” Supanut said. The Computer Crimes Act carries a maximum jail term of five years.
Pol. Lt. Col. Sarawut Buddee, who handled Phra Panya’s investigation, did not answer multiple phone calls made to him on Monday. The summons seen by Khaosod English bore Sarawut’s signature and listed the Special Branch Police as the plaintiff who brought charges against the monk.
The summons letter warned that an arrest warrant would be issued for Phra Panya if he failed to show up by Oct. 8. That deadline has long passed, and Panya’s lawyer said he expected the arrest warrant could be issued at any time.
Holy Man in Exile
Although His Majesty the King reportedly asked the government and the police in June to refrain from pursuing charges of royal defamation against members of the public, critics of the monarchy continue to be prosecuted for their speeches.
One of the offenses often used by police is the sweeping Computer Crime Acts, which outlaws any action on the computer system that could affect national security.
Phra Panya said he is now trying to travel to Europe and seek political asylum status; he believes he is the first Buddhist monk in political exile in recent history, and added that he will contest any attempt to extradite him.
“Let me challenge them to do it so the world can see that they can frame a monk with mindless charges,” he said. “I challenge them to do it.”
Panya, who used to reside at Wat Yanasangvararam in Chonburi province prior to his exile, said he has since been living on personal savings and some donations from the faithful, though he worried that he could run out of money within two months.
The monk has already overstayed his visa in the country he is staying. In order to avoid attention, Phra Panya said he has stopped wearing his monk robe when he goes out. Unlike monks in Thailand, he has to cook for himself nowadays, as no alms can be collected.
“Some Thai political dissidents in exile also told me not to mingle with other Thais,” Panya said.