BANGKOK — Dozens of police officers descended on a gathering in central Bangkok by pro-democracy activists who were campaigning to abolish the royal defamation law.
Several people were detained in the scuffle close to Victory Monument and banners denouncing the royal insult charge confiscated by the police. It was the latest crackdown on dissent by the authorities, who appear to be taking an increasingly aggressive approach to muzzle the calls to reform the monarchy.
The activists began to assemble close to the monument, which serves as a transportation hub for Bangkok, at about 11.40am and unfolding their banners. Supporters were also encouraged to write political slogans on the banners, mostly criticizing the government and the royal defamation law, also known as lese majeste.
Police arrived at the scene about half an hour later and told the demonstrators to leave the area, citing the Emergency Decree’s ban on gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic. When they refused, police charged at the activists and took away several people, prompting a scuffle with the protesters.
A police officer also instructed the media via a loudspeaker to leave, and condemned the activists for “not considering what’s best for the country.”
The officers secured the area by about 1pm.
In recent months, the law enforcement has been taking a series of legal action against pro-democracy campaigners and their supporters accused of insulting His Majesty the King, often on dubious grounds – one person was charged for allegedly mocking Her Majesty the Queen by wearing a traditional Thai costume.
The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a non-profit group that has been assisting the accused, said that up to 43 people have been charged with lese majeste since November, including two underage individuals.
If convicted, they face up to 15 years in prison, per count.
The latest person to have been slapped with lese majeste is believed to be Sirichai “New” Nathuang, a 21-year-old student at Thammasat University who was arrested on Wednesday night at his apartment and held incommunicado for several hours.
Sirichai was accused of spray painting messages critical of lese majeste law on large portraits of Royal Family members on Sunday.
Return of lese majeste after a hiatus of several years alarmed many civil rights observers, who fear the law is being used to punish political opponents and silence discussions.
“We call on the government of Thailand to stop the repeated use of such serious criminal charges against individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” a statement released by the United Nations Human Rights Committee said in December.