Thai court issues warrants after protesters tackle royal taboos

By: AFP      Published: 05:55 PM, 19 Aug, 2020
Thai court issues warrants after protesters tackle royal taboos
Student protesters stand behind a poster comparing Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha to Adolf Hitler during an anti-government rally at King Mongkut's Institute of Technology in Bangkok. AFP

A Thai court issued arrest warrants Wednesday for six pro-democracy activists involved in recent rallies that heard calls for an overhaul of the government and even reforms to the monarchy -- a subject usually taboo in the kingdom.

Near-daily demonstrations by a youth-led pro-democracy movement have been largely tolerated by authorities so far, but police said Wednesday they now had warrants to arrest half a dozen of the most prominent protesters.

They will be charged with "sedition, computer crimes act, violating the diseases control act and using loudspeakers", Pathum Thani provincial police commander Chayut Marayat told AFP. While the use of punitive lese majeste laws has slowed in recent years, legal observers say the military-aligned government has stepped up other legal mechanisms to target dissent -- including using sedition and computer crime legislation. 

Two of the warrants issued Wednesday are for protesters previously arrested and bailed -- human rights lawyer Anon Numpa and student leader Panupong Jadnok -- but they now face fresh charges related to a rally on August 10 at Thammasat University.

That gathering drew some 5,000 people who listened as Anon and Panupong spoke about reform of the kingdom's monarchy -- a taboo topic in Thailand.

Apex of power 

Speakers at weeks of rallies have been openly critical of the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha -- a former army chief who seized power in a 2014 coup.

At the Thammasat rally, however, they also demanded greater accounting of palace finances and the abolition of the controversial royal defamation laws which carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. 

King Maha Vajiralongkorn sits at the apex of Thai power, buttressed by a powerful arch-royalist military and the country's billionaire clans. 

Since he ascended the throne in 2016, the king has made unprecedented changes to the institution -- including amassing direct control of the palace's fortune, which is estimated to be worth up to $60 billion. 

So far, none of the pro-democracy activists have been charged with royal defamation, but their demands have angered pro-royalist supporters and spurred several smaller counter-protests.  

The movement has spread to the country's high schools, with pupils tying a white bow in their hair and on backpacks to show solidarity with the pro-democracy cause.  

Hundreds of uniformed teenagers protested outside the Education Ministry on Wednesday, chanting "dinosaur" and booing the minister for what critics say is a rigid, antiquated education system.