BANGKOK - Two young Thais accused of insulting the monarchy in a university play braced for sentencing Monday as the ruling junta intensifies its crackdown on perceived royal slurs under the kingdom's controversial lese majeste law.
Student Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and activist Porntip Mankong, 26, pleaded guilty to defamation after their arrest last August, nearly a year after "The Wolf Bride", a satire set in a fictional kingdom, was performed at Bangkok's Thammasat University.
They were each charged with one count of lese majeste linked to the play, which marked the 40th anniversary of a pro-democracy student protest at the university that was brutally crushed by the military regime in October 1973.
The pair arrived separately at Ratchada Criminal Court in Bangkok, Patiwat's bare feet bound with chains, where their case scheduled for ruling Monday afternoon had suddenly been brought forward.
Police are hunting for at least six others involved in the performance for allegedly violating "112" - the feared section of the Thai criminal code which carries up to 15 years in jail for each count of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent.
Of those on the wanted list, at least two have fled Thailand, joining dozens of academics, activists and political opponents of the coup in self-exile amid a surge in royal defamation cases since the military seized power in May.
Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, is revered by many in the country as a demi-god and shielded by one of the world's most draconian royal defamation laws.
The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) said at least 40 people have been arrested since the coup - seven of them have already been sentenced to between three and 15 years in prison.
Critics say the lese majeste law has been used as a tool to suppress political dissent, noting that many of those charged have been linked to the opposition Red Shirt movement.
Rights activists as well as local and international media are forced to censor discussion of cases as even repeating details of charges risks breaking the law.
Under junta rule Thailand has seen a rapid deterioration in civil rights with the military crushing any criticsm of the coup, from banning protests and censoring the media to arresting and detaining opponents.
The Wolf Bride was performed in October 2013, several months before the coup, but the case is just one of many driven through by the junta, which is bolstering its self-designated role as protector of the monarchy.
Andrea Giorgetta from FIDH said the surge in lese majeste cases looked set to continue.
"We're expecting a lot more people to go to jail in the next month. Almost all cases have been backdated (for alleged offences) before the coup," he told AFP. "It's a very grim situation for rights in Thailand." Recent "112" convictions include a taxi driver jailed for two-and-a-half years after his passenger recorded their conversation on a mobile phone, while a student, 24, was sentenced to the same period of time for defaming the monarchy in a message posted on Facebook.
Analysts say the most recent chapter of Thailand's long-drawn political turmoil is fuelled by anxieties over who will run the country when the more than six-decade reign of the ailing king, the world's longest-serving monarch, eventually ends.
Discussion of succession is also restricted in Thailand under the lese majeste law.