Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, has spent months in jail after making an unprecedented, taboo-breaking speech openly calling for discussion on Thailand’s powerful king’s role. He was charged with defaming the monarchy.
He is one of 103 people charged with insulting or threatening King Maha Vajiralongkorn or his immediate family during Thailand’s youth-led anti-government protests, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Hundreds more are facing additional criminal charges.
Arnon, 36, says he has no regrets and vows the prosecutions won’t crush the anti-government movement, which in recent weeks has been building again.
“I think it has been worthwhile. Now the society can move forward and people can talk about the monarchy,” Arnon told Reuters in an interview while awaiting trial. He denies any wrongdoing.
In conservative Thai culture, the king has traditionally been portrayed as above reproach, and any criticism of the monarch – whom some have regarded as semi-divine – is both taboo and illegal.
Arnon, on the other hand, believes that openly discussing the monarchy is necessary in the push for democratic reform and the ouster of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to power in a 2014 coup and has long been associated with loyalty to the king.
Anucha Burapachaisri, the government’s spokesman, defended the criminal cases filed against protesters on Monday.
“Sometimes the protests were not peaceful … when there is violence the police must maintain peace,” Anucha said.
The palace has said it will not respond to questions on the protests. Prayuth’s office says he retained power in free and fair elections in 2019.
The anti-government movement was already building last year when Arnon’s late-night speech at an Aug. 3 Harry Potter-themed protest helped electrify it.
For months afterwards, thousands poured onto the streets, at times clashing with the police.
FAMILIAR LEGAL TACTIC
Since last year, 695 protesters have been charged with crimes including sedition and causing unrest. Among those 103 are charged with lese majeste, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
Analyst Titipol Phakdeewanich says Thailand’s military-royalist establishment has for decades used royal insult laws to silence critics.
“The government is using its old legal tactic, which has been partially effective in creating fear that has prevented more people from coming out publicly to talk about the monarchy,” said Titipol, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University.
“But there are some people that do not care,” he said.
Arnon, a youth movement adviser, is facing 12 separate lese majeste charges and was imprisoned for 113 days before being released on bail in June.
Kissana Phathanacharoen, deputy police spokesman, denied that cases against protesters were politically motivated.
Protests slowed earlier this year after key leaders were imprisoned and a severe COVID-19 outbreak drove many people inside.
However, in recent weeks, there has been a resurgence of protests.
This time, it’s not just young people who are protesting.
Some of the government’s former allies took to the streets in late June, demanding Prayuth resign over his handling of the worst COVID-19 outbreak to date.
Arnon said the youth movement will continue its fight.
“If this was a football game, we are far from the final whistle,” Arnon said.