Thai general sought as royal defamation probe widens

BANGKOK - Arrest warrants have been issued for a Thai general and two senior police officers for royal defamation, authorities said Thursday, part of a snowballing probe linked to the palace that has seen two suspects die in military custody.

Cases under Thailand's controversial lese majeste law have surged since the junta took over last year at a time of intense concern over the health of the kingdom's revered but ailing 87-year-old monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Under the widely interpreted draconian law, anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent can face up to 15 years in jail on each count.

The ongoing probe has given the Thai public a rare glimpse of alleged wrongdoing among the country's elite including high ranking members of the the security forces.

Thailand's powerful army have long portrayed themselves as protectors of the monarchy and it is unusual for soldiers to be implicated in lese majeste.

But a string of military and police officers have now been ensnared in allegations that they used their apparent royal connections to demand cash.

At a press conference in Bangkok on Thursday police named four new suspects wanted for royal defamation, including Major General Suchart Prommai, a high ranking army officer.

Police spokesman Major General Chayapon Chatchaidej said Suchart stands accused of "claiming a connection to the institution to gain benefits" - a reference to the royal family.

Two senior police officers are also wanted. All three officials, and a civilian who is also wanted for lese majeste, have not been arrested, Chayapon added, without elaborating whether they are on the run or not.

There are severe limits on what can be reported about lese majeste cases in Thailand, with media forced to heavily self-censor.

The current probe became public last month when three people, including a famous fortune teller and a senior police officer were arrested.

Both the police officer and the soothsayer have since died in military custody.

According to the authorities the police officer hung himself, while the soothsayer died of blood poisoning. Both men's bodies were handed to their families and cremated within a day, an unusual practice in Buddhist Thailand where funeral rites usually last at least a week.

An arrest warrant had earlier been issued for an army colonel caught up in the probe. Local media report he fled across the border with Myanmar last month.

While growing numbers of the elite have been caught up in royal connection probes, the majority of those prosecuted under lese majeste are punished for expressing views critical of the monarchy, often on social media.

Many have been given record-breaking, decades-long jail sentences in recent months, a practice which has been condemned by the United States and the United Nations.