BANGKOK - An "unprecedented" number of people have been charged with insulting Thailand's monarchy since the coup, Amnesty International said Thursday, with 14 Thais indicted under the controversial lese majeste law in less than four months.
Revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, is protected by one of the world's toughest royal defamation laws -- anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
"An unprecedented number of people have been charged with lese majeste offences... with fourteen charges or prosecutions initiated since the coup," Amnesty said in a report about rights since the military takeover on 22 May.
The rights group said commentators calling for reform of the law or those previously jailed for royal defamation "appear to have been targeted" in the lists of people the junta required to report to them after seizing power.
Last month two activists were charged with breaching the law during an October 2013 university play which featured a fictitious monarchy.
In another recent case, a 28-year-old musician was sentenced to 15 years in jail for writing insulting Facebook posts about the monarchy between 2010 and 2011.
Junta spokesman Winthai Suvaree denied there had been an increase in royal defamation charges under his regime.
"They are old cases... but probably there have been some arrests during this time," he said, adding there had been no human rights violations under the junta.
Amnesty says more than 570 people were officially ordered to report to authorities in the days after the coup, estimating the number would be higher if informal orders were recorded.
Martial law concerns
In his weekly televised speeches, junta chief and recently appointed prime minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha has reiterated the importance of the royal defamation legislation.
"The laws are aimed at protecting the royal institution. Thailand's strength is based in the monarchy institution and stability," he said last Friday.
Some experts believe that a struggle is unfolding to decide who will run Thailand's government when the more than six-decade reign of the ailing king eventually ends.
The succession is a taboo topic in the country and its discussion is restricted under the royal defamation law.
Critics say that law has been politicised, noting that many of those charged in recent years were linked to the "Red Shirts" protest movement, which is broadly supportive of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Japan's Kyoto University, said there was a "worrying trend" of back-dating royal slur cases as the junta sought to "legitimise" the coup as a force to prevent disorder.
In another shift, the Thai academic noted a broader use of the law when compared to the previous coup in 2006, which toppled Thaksin as premier.
"Last time it was used as a weapon between elites. Now it could affect anyone," said Pavin, who is wanted by Thai police for failing to report to junta summonses.
Thaksin clashed with the royalist establishment before his overthrow, and shortly before May's army takeover his younger sister Yingluck was ousted as prime minister in a controversial court decision.
Rights activists have also voiced concern over the fate of suspects charged under martial law, imposed by the army two days before the coup, as they can face military courts with no right of appeal.
Prayuth has said he was forced to take power after months of protests against Yingluck's administration left 28 people dead and hundreds wounded.
He has ruled out holding new elections before October 2015, despite international appeals for a return to democracy.