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Rule of LawThailand

Thailand: What happened to monarchy protest movement?

Emmy Sasipornkarn
November 17, 2022

Authorities continue to clamp down on activists in Thailand calling for reform to draconian lese majeste laws. Public interest has waned, and prominent activists say they are heavily monitored.

A protester holds a pink umbrella with signs hanging from it and writing in Thai
Bangkok protesters carry signs that read: "No to Article 112," Thailand's lese majeste lawImage: Sakchai Lalit/AP Photo/picture alliance

In August 2020, a youth-led protest movement began to sweep across Thailand, calling for constitutional reforms to rein in far-reaching powers of the country's monarchy

Their demands inspired hundreds of thousands of people across Thailand, but, over two years later, the scale and intensity of protests have waned.

Human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa helped inspire the movement back in 2020 after he broke long-standing taboos and openly demanded reforms of the monarchy during a rally.

Student-led groups followed up with a 10-point manifesto aimed at reining in the palace's far-reaching powers, including cuts to the royal budget and repeal of lese majeste laws.

Thailand has some of the world's strictest lese majeste laws. Under Article 112 of the Thai constitution, defaming or criticizing the Thai royal family can have serious legal consequences.

Arnon, who is facing at least 14 lese majeste charges, told DW that the movement to reform the monarchy has become more subdued.

"You cannot expect protests to take place every day, every month, that there would be tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people," Arnon said. "Protests are just one part of the movement," he added.

A crowd of people under glass buildings
In 2020, mass protests in Bangkok demanded reforms to the monarchyImage: Jorge Silva/Reuters

Arnon said monarchy reform advocates active on social media had become more prudent as royal defamation charges now extend to statements made online.

Thailand cracks down on lese majeste

At least 218 people, including 17 minors, have been charged with royal defamation in Thailand since November 2020, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR). 

More than half of the cases cited were related to online political expression, while about 45% stemmed from complaints filed by civilians, as the law allows individuals to bring lese majeste charges against others, according to TLHR.

TLHR also documented that at least 1,864 people were prosecuted for "political participation and expression" between 2020 and 2022.

"Many of our friends are still detained," pro-democracy activist Patsaravalee Tanakitvibulpon told DW. "Some have been held for more than 200 days."

At the time of publishing, there are at least 11 political detainees, including three on lese majeste cases.

Patsaravalee said courts had repeatedly denied bail requests, and that campaigns to release activists no longer grab as much public attention. She said the government had made people "numb and accustomed" to protesters being detained.

Released from jail with a muzzle

For those who have managed to get released on bail, their conditional liberty often comes along with a hefty bond and vague conditions that limit their freedom of expression and movement.

Thai band rocks against royal insult law

"Bail conditions like refraining from undertaking any activities that could cause unrest or potentially damage the monarchy are very broad," Chonticha Jangrew, a prominent activist since the 2014 military coup, told DW.

She said these conditions forced people into self-censorship, as "even voicing opinions in good faith could put us at risk of our bail being revoked."

Arnon was released in February 2020 after having been detained for over 200 days. He said he is prohibited by court order from encouraging others to protest and is not allowed to share posts on social media about demonstrations.

Arnon and many other activists are also forced to wear electronic monitoring bracelets as part of their bail, a requirement that severely disrupts their daily lives,

Activist Chonticha said the bail conditions had blunted the protest movement.

"We don't know when these conditions will be used as a tool to revoke our bail, which forces us to be more careful [in our speeches and actions]," the 27-year-old said.

Some activists flee Thailand

Given the draconian nature of the lese majeste law, its arbitrary use and restrictive bail conditions, some activists who are facing charges have opted to leave Thailand and seek asylum abroad. 

Kanyamon Sunanrat, who began her activism only last year, never thought she would one day have to flee her home for expressing her political views. She faces at least eight charges, two of which are related to royal defamation.

Her bail conditions require her not to repeat the same offenses or do anything deemed offensive to the monarchy.

"That is basically telling us to put an end to our activism," she said.

"I tried to continue, but the police asked the court to revoke my bail. I've survived this twice, but who knows when my luck will run out," said Kanyamon, who promised to continue her activism from France.

"Moving abroad is not giving up," she added.

For Patsaravalee, seeking asylum never crossed her mind despite having been charged with 13 counts under the law.

"I don't think about it. ... I want to prove the truth, for people to see how damaging Article 112 is to our society," she said.

A crowd of people confronted by police
Protesters and police often clashed on the streets of BangkokImage: Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA/Zuma/picture alliance

Where does the movement go from here?

Chonticha has decided to run for a parliamentary seat with the progressive Move Forward Party in the next election, set for May. She said change to Thailand's laws would need to begin with lawmakers.

"Street protests alone are not enough," she said.

As part of its policy pledges, her party recently launched a new push to reduce the harsh penalties and prevent the use of the lese majeste law for political purposes. It is currently the only party to ask for such changes. 

The party's proposal to amend Article 112 stops short of the reformist movement's demand to repeal the law. However, Chonticha said amending the law was the "first step" in reducing the number of people charged and putting an end to its arbitrary use.

Over two years after he helped spark the reformist movement, Arnon said he expected more politicians in the future would be emboldened to question the Thai monarchy.

"Discussing the monarchy has caught on," the 38-year-old said. "We might not see a radical change like a revolution ... but one thing is for sure: Thai society will not backtrack."

Edited by: Shamil Shams