Activists sentenced to prison for acting in university play

Two activists have been sentenced to prison terms for performing a play on campus that was deemed to have defamed the Thai royal family.

Pornthip Mankong, a 26-year-old activist, and Patiwat Saraiyaem, a 23-year-old fine arts student from northeastern Khon Kaen University, were members of the Prakaifire (spark) theatre activist group.

They performed ‘The Wolf Bride’, a satirical play about a fictional king, at Thammasat University during the October Commemoration Week in 2013 – an event organised to commemorate the student uprising against the Thai dictatorship in the 1970s.

The play prompted a group of royalists to file complaints against them for violating Thailand’s lèse majesté law. They were arrested in August last year and have been imprisoned since then.

The trial judges stated on Monday that even though the defendants were cooperating with the authorities and had confessed, the play was staged in Thammasat University’s main hall and was later broadcast widely on the Internet.

The court’s view was that this had seriously harmed the monarchy and therefore the charges could not be suspended, even though the defendants had clean records and prior social work.

As both confessed, the court reduced the sentence under Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law from five years to two years and six months.

Pavinee Chumsri, a lawyer from the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights network, representing the pair, said Pornthip and Patiwat decided to confess because it was less risky. She said if they had insisted on pleading not guilty, they could have ended up getting five years or more in prison.

“Even though the activists did not think what they did was wrong, they would rather have the process end quickly,” Pavinee told University World News, adding that they would not appeal any further.

"It is yet another serious blow to freedom of expression in Thailand and another dark mark on Thailand's already battered international reputation," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

"Vowing to protect the monarchy, the junta has accelerated efforts to hunt down alleged lèse majesté actions and statements, and prosecute people for peaceful expression of views, like conducting a play, posting online, or making a speech,” Adams said in a statement.

After Thailand’s May 2014 military coup, the two activists remained in hiding but were arrested in August the same year.

The AFP news agency reported on Monday that the police were hunting for six other members who performed in the play. At least two of them are in exile.

Aggressively enforced

Observers said the lèse majesté law has been aggressively enforced since the military regime, or the National Council for Peace and Order, came to power in May. The junta aims to secure stability by suppressing dissents at a time when succession to the throne looms as the current 87-year-old king has long been in ill health.

The lèse majesté law, also known as article 112, carries minimum five years to 15 years imprisonment for defaming the King, Queen, Crown Prince and Regent.

Critics say this law severely limits freedom of speech and is often used to suppress political dissent.

According to the Paris-based NGO, the International Federation for Human Rights, 40 people have been arrested for defaming the monarchy after May 2014. Most of them were repeatedly denied bail, similar to the case of Pornthip and Patiwat.

After the 2006 military coup, the number of lèse majesté cases increased from four or five cases per year to about 478 cases in 2010, roughly a 1,500% increase, according to David Streckfuss, an academic who wrote the book Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, treason, and lèse-majesté.