BANGKOK - Two Thais accused of defaming the monarchy in a university play pleaded guilty on Monday amid an intensifying junta crackdown on perceived royal slurs under the kingdom's controversial lese majeste law.
Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, is shielded by some of the world's toughest royal defamation rules under which anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
"Both defendants plead guilty to the charges," said the judge at Ratchada Criminal Court in northeast Bangkok, adding sentence would be passed on February 23.
Student Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and activist Porntip Mankong, 25, were arrested in August, nearly a year after the "The Wolf Bride" play was shown at Bangkok's Thammasat University.
They were each charged with one count of lese majeste linked to the performance, which marked the 40th anniversary of a pro-democracy student protest that was brutally crushed by authorities in October 1973.
Both accused were brought into court barefoot - Patiwat's feet bound with chains - at a hearing attended by a few dozen people including their relatives, students and an observer from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Patiwat, a final-year student at Khon Kaen University, acted in the piece - which was about a fictional monarchy - while Porntip co-ordinated the production as well as also playing a small role.
Rights groups say cases breaching Section 112 of the criminal code have surged since the army seized power in May, as the military burnishes its reputation as the defender of the royal family.
A recent study by the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights said 18 new arrests have been made since the coup, with outstanding cases fast-tracked through the courts.
The junta says it was forced to seize power after months of anti-government protests. It vows to expunge corruption and protect the monarchy.
On November 18 a radio show host was jailed for five years by a military court for breaching the lese majeste law.
A few days earlier a 24-year-old student was jailed for two-and-a-half years after pleading guilty to defaming the monarchy in a message posted on Facebook under a pseudonym.
Critics say the lese majeste law has been politicised, noting that many of those charged in recent years have been linked to the Red Shirts who support fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thailand's long-running political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite, backed by parts of the military and judiciary, against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin.
Thaksin, the older brother of ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, was toppled in a previous coup in 2006 and lives in self-exile to avoid prison for a corruption conviction.
Both local and international media must practise heavy self-censorship when covering the royal family. Even repeating details of charges could break the law.