Theatre group in junta crosshairs for `defaming` Thai royals

Forced overseas to avoid arrest for defaming the Thai monarchy, members of a theatre group say the ruling junta has mired the kingdom in a witch-hunt as it ramps up prosecutions under the country`s notorious lese majeste laws.

AFP| Last Updated: Jan 05, 2015, 11:05 AM IST

Bangkok: Forced overseas to avoid arrest for defaming the Thai monarchy, members of a theatre group say the ruling junta has mired the kingdom in a witch-hunt as it ramps up prosecutions under the country`s notorious lese majeste laws.

Two people are already in custody for roles in a performance of "The Wolf Bride" -- a satire set in a fictional kingdom -- which sparked a cascade of complaints for allegedly slandering Thailand`s royal family.

Police are hunting at least six others for violating "112" -- the feared article of the Thai criminal code which carries up to 15 years in jail for each count of insulting, threatening or defaming the king, queen, heir or regent.

Of those on the wanted list, at least two have fled Thailand, joining dozens of academics, activists and political opponents of the coup in self-exile amid a surge in "112" cases since royalist generals seized power in May.

"There`s a fog over the kingdom," a member of the activist "Prakai Fai" (Sparking Fire) theatre group at the centre of the controversy told AFP from outside of Thailand, requesting anonymity. 

"But we have to accept that Thailand still has laws that block critical opinions, laws that shut people`s mouths."

The Wolf Bride was performed in October 2013, several months before the coup, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a student uprising at Bangkok`s liberal Thammasat University.

Student Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and Porntip Mankong, 26, face jail after pleading guilty to a breach of article 112 for their roles -- as an actor and co-producer respectively. 

They have been in custody since their arrest in August. 

The case is just one of many driven through by a junta which says it must champion the monarchy -- led by revered but ailing 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej -- while simultaneously reshaping Thailand`s political landscape.But the military has led Thai society down a dark path, according to the Prakai Fai member, deliberately blurring the lines between political dissent and perceived attacks on the monarchy.

"Anyone can report on anyone else. It (112) is being used as a tool to get rid of opposition." 

Taking their cues from the junta, groups of royalist volunteers are scouring social media for potential violations -- joining the ranks of state-trained "cyber-scouts" who patrol the Internet.

The self-appointed Rubbish Collectors` Organisation and the Royal Monarch Alert Protection Network, which complained to police about The Wolf Bride, both have hotlines to report possible breaches of the law. 

In this atmosphere of surveillance, lese majeste charges and convictions are rising.

The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights said 18 new arrests have been made since the coup, echoing Amnesty International who describe the number of new charges as "unprecedented".

Those figures came before the arrest of several senior police officers -- including relatives of former Princess Srirasmi -- in a corruption probe.

Many of them have been charged with royal defamation while Srirasmi has been stripped of her title, a royal name she acquired through her marriage to the Crown Prince.

Recent 112 convictions include a taxi driver jailed for two and a half years after his passenger recorded their conversation on a mobile phone, while a complaint has been levelled at a prominent historian for a speech on a Thai king who ruled more than 400 years ago.

"We can expect more and more cases," says David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based analyst, who has written widely on lese majeste.

"The most disturbing thing is it has spurred on citizens to make complaints," he said, adding the kingdom was now an "informer state".The army says it was forced to seize power to end protests against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra -- the sister of billionaire tycoon Thaksin.

The Shinawatra clan have won every election since 2001.

King Bhumibol, who endorsed May`s coup but has no official political role, is seen as a unifying figure in a country beset by division. 

Observers say the recent political turmoil is fired by the concern of competing elites over the kingdom`s future once Bhumibol`s reign ends. 

The lese majeste law, one of the most draconian of its kind anywhere, prevents that uncertainty fanning out into open criticism of the monarchy.

But it also smothers debate on the validity and application of the legislation. 

Even the details of cases are difficult to report, obscuring much of the legal process from the public, while judges -- and now military courts -- have discretion over convictions and sentencing.

Domestic and foreign media, including AFP, routinely self-censor all reporting linked to the Thai monarchy to avoid falling foul of the law. 

Police say many scenes in The Wolf Bride appeared to be defamatory.

"But we cannot tell you what they were," national police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri told AFP.

A Red Shirt intellectual, Jaran Ditapichai, who commissioned Prakai Fai for the Thammasat University commemorations, concedes he is unsurprised to have also been accused of violations of 112.

Speaking to AFP from France, where he has been granted political asylum, he said such legal moves aim to denigrate political opponents of the junta and send a clear message to the Thai public. 

"When you are charged with 112 you can never go back to Thailand," he said.