Stigma haunts relatives of Thais jailed under royal insult law

Stigma haunts relatives of Thais jailed under royal insult law
PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - When Natnicha's husband was jailed for insulting Thailand's monarchy under the country's lese majeste laws, she didn't just lose a partner.

She lost her friends and place in Thai society - joining the growing ranks of outcasts since royalist generals seized power a year ago.

Several anti-coup activists, two theatre performers, a bookseller and even a mentally ill 65-year-old have been jailed under the draconian '112' royal defamation law since the May 22 power grab by the Thai junta.

Rights groups describe it as an "unprecedented" surge in cases from a military that tacks its legitimacy to a self-appointed role as protector of the monarchy.

Several weeks after her husband was jailed Natnicha - not her real name - said she was still afraid of the consequences of speaking openly about the sentence in a kingdom where insulting the king, queen, heir or regent carries up to 15 years in jail, on each count.

Even being linked to those accused of the offence can bring opprobrium in a sharply hierarchical society where reverence to the monarchy - led by 87-year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej - is a given.

"My family has been cut off from everyone," she told AFP.

"Most people don't want to hear about what happened because they are themselves afraid."

On Friday Thailand's ultra-royalist military marks a year since it toppled the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

Martial law, which was eventually replaced by a draconian series of security measures, has virtually wiped out public debate with political gatherings of more than five people banned and criticism of the junta outlawed.

But few things illustrate this stark new reality under Thailand's junta better than the surge in royal defamation cases and convictions.

Cases stacking up

Prior to last year's coup the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) counted just five Thais behind bars on lese majeste charges. That number has since risen to 18, the FIDH said Wednesday, with sentences ranging from one to 50 years, although most defendants saw their sentences halved on guilty pleas.

Prosecutions "are likely to continue at a steady pace in the coming months," the FIDH said in statement, citing Thai police figures of 204 active cases, with 128 under investigation including those of 30 Thais living overseas.

Yet debate on the scope and legitimacy of the law is smothered. Both domestic and international media must heavily self-censor when reporting lese majeste cases. Even repeating details of the charges could mean breaking the law.

And while the military parades its successes in prosecuting 112 alleged infringements, the families of those jailed find themselves ostracised. "My friends never got in touch with me afterwards," said the wife of another man jailed recently, also requesting anonymity. The pressure was so bad she said she felt compelled to move house.

"Even those who I know feel sympathy for me never discuss my husband's fate."

'High treason'

Thailand's coup leaders have made no secret of their determination to ramp up lese majeste cases.

"The most important thing is to maintain the monarchy. We have the law for it," former army chief and now Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said last month.

Decades spent crafting the role of guardian of the monarchy has embedded the military's influence over Thai politics, analysts say - a valuable position as fears abound over the future of the country once King Bhumibol's reign ends.

Critics accuse the junta of using the law to pursue its enemies.

"There is a crystallisation of the lese-majeste crime as a kind of high treason, the crime against the state par excellence," Thailand analyst David Streckfuss told AFP.

It amounts to "a rather desperate attempt by the old elite" to protect the status quo... which in their minds is under attack from all directions," he added.

Many recent lese majeste convictions have been made in military courts, often in secret. Sentences have also been harsh. In early April a 58-year-old man was jailed for 25-years for five Facebook posts, sparking international condemnation.

Other cases are old allegations that have been resurrected, including a bookseller jailed last month for an alleged offence carried out nine years ago. Whatever the context, the stigma sticks to those associated with lese majeste convicts, even for those jailed before the coup.

Panitan Prueaksakasemsuk, 23, said he struggled to find work because his father, who ran two magazines close to the pro-democracy 'Red Shirt' movement, was jailed in 2011.

"I spent a lot of trying to find a job and every time I was questioned about my father and his politics," he said. In the end an American company hired him.

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