In the year since he made an unprecedented, taboo-breaking speech openly calling for discussion on the role of Thailand’s powerful king, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa has spent months in jail, charged with the crime of defaming the monarchy.
He’s one of 103 people from Thailand’s youth-led anti-government protests now charged with insulting or threatening King Maha Vajiralongkorn or his immediate family, a crime punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Hundreds more face similar 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 our society can move forward and people can talk about the monarchy,” Arnon told Reuters in an interview while awaiting trial. He denies any wrongdoing.
The king has traditionally been portrayed as above reproach in conservative Thai culture, and any criticism of the monarch – whom some view as semi-divine – is taboo as well as illegal. The palace has said it will not respond to questions on the protests.
Arnon, however, says talking openly about the monarchy is necessary in the push for democratic reform and the ouster of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who first came to power in a 2014 coup and has long associated himself with loyalty to the king. Prayut’s office says he retained power in free and fair elections in 2019.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri on Monday defended the criminal cases against protesters.
“Sometimes the protests were not peaceful. When there is violence the police must maintain peace,” Anucha said.
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.
Since last year, nearly 700 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 the country’s 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 who do not care.”
Arnon, an adviser to the youth movement, faces 12 separate lese majeste charges and spent 113 days imprisoned before being released on bail in June.
The protests slowed earlier this year after key leaders were jailed and a severe outbreak of Covid-19 drove many inside but in recent weeks, demonstrations have again been building.
Older people are now adding their voices. In late June, some of the government’s former allies took to the streets demanding Prayuth’s resignation over his handling of the worst Covid-19 outbreak to date.
Arnon says the pro-democracy movement will continue its fight.
“If this was a football game, we are far from the final whistle,” Arnon said.