After final hugs with friends and loud cheers from supporters, 22-year-old Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul walked into the Bangkok Criminal Court suspecting

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A young Thai woman in wire rimmed glasses smiles

After final hugs with friends and loud cheers from supporters, 22-year-old Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul walked into the Bangkok Criminal Court suspecting she might not come back out. She was right.

Within a few hours, she was behind bars awaiting trial later this year and she could remain there long after.

The sociology student is one of the leaders of Thailand’s youth protest movement.

After loudly and proudly breaking a long-standing taboo last year by criticising the monarchy and calling for it to be reformed, Rung, as she is widely known, was charged under Thailand’s strict royal defamation law.

If she is found guilty of insulting, defaming or threatening King Maha Vajiralongkorn, the Queen, the Heir-apparent, or the Regent, she could face a sentence of between three and 15 years’ jail for each offence.

With nine charges laid against her, that technically means she could be handed a maximum jail sentence of up to 135 years.

A young woman stands surrounded by journalists holding microphones under her face

A young woman stands surrounded by journalists holding microphones under her faceSeveral young protesters who have led mass rallies calling for monarchy reform are currently in jail awaiting trial and could face between three and 15 year sentences for each offence.(ABC News: Supattra Vimonsuknopparat

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Rung spent over a fortnight in custody last year following mass protests that came about after her calls for monarchy reform and said she was as ready as she could be to go in again.

“I have prepared myself the best I can,” Rung told the ABC as she arrived at the court complex.

“Thailand has been changed hugely [by the protest movement] and there is no return … I feel going to jail is worth it already.”

Dozens of protesters charged with royal defamation

Depending on who you talk to in Thailand, Rung is either a brave warrior for the monarchy reform cause or a rude young woman who’s insulted the country’s most important and sacred institution.

Last year, she shocked the nation by publicly challenging the King with a 10-point manifesto for monarchy reform, which included unprecedented calls for curbs on His Majesty’s power and wealth.

A young woman points her finger at a row of policemen

A young woman points her finger at a row of policemenPanusaya Sithijirawattankul, known as Rung, read out a 10-point manifesto calling for dramatic reforms to Thailand’s monarchy.(AP: Wason Wanichakorn

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She read the manifesto out on stage at an anti-government protest in Bangkok in front of hundreds of people.

At a rally of more than 10,000 people near the ceremonial Grand Palace a month later, she took to the stage once more to repeat her demands.

She was also a prominent figure at subsequent mass demonstrations.

A second wave of COVID-19 in Thailand that emerged in December has kept large rallies at bay this year, but with Rung and the other protest leaders now back in jail awaiting trial, the topic has returned to the national conversation.

In the past four months, 70 protesters have been charged under the royal defamation law, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group. Four of them are under the age of 18.

Supporters of the protesters say they should not be behind bars for exercising freedom of speech, but their critics believe they must face the consequences because they have broken Thai law knowingly, repeatedly and very publicly.

Supporters of the Thai monarchy, wearing yellow, display images of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a rally.

Supporters of the Thai monarchy, wearing yellow, display images of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a rally.Supporters of the Thai monarchy have held their own protests in response to a student-led movement to reform the country’s power structure.(AP: Gemunu Amarasinghe

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Arnond Sakworawich, an outspoken royalist, told the ABC that many Thai people believed the young activists had gone too far.

“If you don’t break the law repeatedly there is not a big deal. The penalties by themselves are not really a big deal,” Dr Sakworawich said.

“But [if] you did it again and again and again, that’s a problem. And [in] every country, if you break the law again and again and again, the penalty will be higher. It is a universal rule of law.”

He added that he supported freedom of speech if it was the truth, but what the young protesters had been saying about Thailand’s royal family was lies.

“When you have freedom, you must have responsibility,” he said.

“Any kind of freedom of speech, or freedom of expression, or even freedom to protest, has a limitation. You have to respect somebody else’s rights too and you have to use your rights in a lawful way.”

Dr Sakworawich said he felt “pity” for the protest leaders in jail because he believed they had been treated like “puppets” and “manipulated” by corrupt politicians who were financing the anti-monarchy movement.

The protest leaders have denied being influenced by any external people or parties.

A history of long sentences for royal offenders

Prajak Kongkirati, an associate professor in political science from Bangkok’s Thammasat University, said he believed the protesters should not be in jail for peacefully speaking out.

He described the royal defamation law they had been charged with, Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code, as “draconian”.

“If you look at other countries, even if they have this law it is rarely implemented, and when it is implemented or enforced there is never a harsh sentence to put people in jail just because you criticise the head of the state,” Dr Kongkirati told the ABC.

“Many Thai people have to go [into] exile and never come back to the country because of this Article 112 and many people are put in jail for more than 50 years.”

A man in a golden jacket is carried on a golden chair through the streets with twinkling lights hanging from trees

A man in a golden jacket is carried on a golden chair through the streets with twinkling lights hanging from treesThe protest movement could be the greatest threat to the Thai King’s rule.(Reuters: Soe Zeya Tun

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He said the royal defamation law had been interpreted too widely in recent times.

“There is a case of one woman who was given a sentence to be put in jail for 87 years just for sharing a video clip [that criticised the King],” Dr Kongkirati said.

“Someone else criticised the dog, the pet of the King, and they were charged with [Article] 112 so you can see the arbitrariness of the use of this law at the moment.”

A proposal to ease the royal defamation law

Last month, the opposition Move Forward Party submitted a proposal in the Thai parliament to amend the law.

It suggested allowing honest criticism of the monarchy, reducing punishment terms and allowing only the Royal Household Bureau, instead of private citizens, to file complaints.

Those who defame or threaten the King would still face imprisonment under the proposal, but only for up to one year. They could also cop a $12,000 fine.

A young Thai woman in a blue top and wire-rimmed glasses does a three-fingered salute

A young Thai woman in a blue top and wire-rimmed glasses does a three-fingered salutePanusaya Sithijirawattanakul, also known as Rung, has been denied bail on the royal defamation law.(ABC News: Supattra Vimonsuknopparat

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Rung told the ABC she believed the royal defamation law should be revoked entirely.

“There is no need to have this special criminal law separately,” she said.

“If [the royal family] think they were insulted they should use [civil] defamation law to sue.

“But anyone can accuse anyone by using Article 112 and it has to go through the court process without knowing if the [King or monarchy] are actually upset by it or if it is because of another agenda.”

Dr Sakworawich said the royal defamation law did not need to be changed because if people simply abided by it there was no need to fear it.

“People who actually call for abolishment of the [royal defamation] law actually break this law themselves … and they don’t want to be in trouble,” he said.

“It’s kind of a conflict of interest.”

Pro-democracy activists flash three-fingered salute during a demonstration at Kaset intersection, suburbs of Bangkok.

Pro-democracy activists flash three-fingered salute during a demonstration at Kaset intersection, suburbs of Bangkok.Students have embraced the pro-democracy movement, calling for the Prime Minister to step down and for the constitution to be amended.(AP: Sakchai Lalit

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He added that despite the global attention the vocal, youth protest movement had received, he believed the vast majority of people in Thailand did not agree with calls to reform the monarchy.

“People who protect the monarchy [are] actually a silent majority. I think more than 90 per cent of Thais still want to protect the monarchy,” Dr Sakworawich said.

The Bangkok Criminal Court did not grant Rung or the other protest leaders bail while they await a trial date.

Dr Kongkirati said there was still plenty of momentum amongst protesters even with the leaders in jail and he expects demonstrations to ramp up again now that the COVID-19 threat is easing in Thailand.

“It is a watershed moment, it is a new political landscape,” he said.

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