One of Thailand’s most prominent political activists has been sentenced to four years in prison under the country’s controversial lese-majeste law.
Arnon Nampa, a 39-year-old human rights lawyer, was charged in connection with a speech he gave during pro-democracy protests in October 2020, during which he called for greater public debate on the power and political role of the Thai monarchy.
Arnon’s lawyer Krisadang Nutcharus told Reuters that he would lodge an appeal and if necessary, take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. “Arnon will be sent to prison while he waits for a bail decision, which could take two to three days,” he said.
Arnon was a prominent leader of the campaign of youth-dominated protests that took place in 2020, after the court-ordered dissolution of the progressive Future Forward Party, which came in third place at the March 2019 election, in opposition to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
The protests, which reached a peak in the second half of the year, demanded the resignation of then Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the creation of a new and genuinely democratic constitution. Most explosively, many activists extended their political critique to encompass the role of the Thai monarchy, an institution that provides moral cover for Thailand’s lopsided concentrations of wealth and power.
Arnon’s speech in October 2020 was among the first public calls for reform of the monarchy. During the speech, he told crowds that if there was any order to crack down on protesters that day, this could have come only from King Vajiralongkorn. He was arrested the following day.
Yesterday’s lese-majeste ruling is part of a broader offensive by Thailand’s conservative royalist establishment to repress the leaders of the protest movement, whose youthful constituency helped drive the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP), the successor to Future Forward, to victory at the general election in May.
In waging this offensive, the authorities have made ample use of the lese-majeste law – Article 112 of the Thai criminal code – which can be used to criminalize virtually any comment about the monarchy or the royal family that falls short of outright praise and flattery. Since the 2020 protests, at least 257 people have been charged with lese-majeste, according to the advocacy group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. At least 18 of these cases have involved adolescents under the age of 18. Arnon Nampa alone faces 14 separate lese-majeste charges.
Many of these have involved minor or oblique “offenses,” which have been reported to the authorities by royalist “petitioners.” Among the more absurd are the case of a man who was sentenced to two years in prison for selling calendars featuring cartoons of yellow ducks that authorities alleged defamed the monarchy, and another who received the same sentence for placing a sticker on a portrait of King Vajiralongkorn. Another activist was sentenced to three years imprisonment for wearing traditional Thai attire at a political demonstration in October 2020 – an act that was deemed to be insulting to Queen Suthida.
Arnon’s sentencing came just a few days after Pannika Wanich, a former MP for Future Forward and one of Thailand’s most prominent progressive politicians, was banned from standing for political office for life for posting a photo on Facebook back in 2010. The photo showed her pointing at a portrait of the then King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Despite the heavy price paid by many protest organizers, the 2020 demonstrations have succeeded in pushing the issue of the monarchy into the public conversation. The MFP, which has close links to the youth protest movement, made reform of Article 112 one of its main campaign promises ahead of the general election in May. The party ended up scoring a stunning victory, winning 150 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives.
While the MFP was subsequently prevented from forming a government due to the staunch opposition of conservative parties and the military-appointed Senate, its success points to the existence of a large constituency that is ready to have open discussions about Thailand’s institution-that-must-not-be-named.
Now that the taboo against discussion the monarchy has been broken, the conservative establishment will find it hard to reassemble, though it will no doubt try. As discussions about the monarchy become more open and widespread, its only recourse will be further prosecutions under Article 112.