Court ruling on protest speeches shrinks freedoms further

A ruling this month by Thailand’s highest court deemed that speeches by activists demanding monarchy reform were an attempt to overthrow the country’s long-standing system of rule, further fuelling political conflicts between ultra-conservative groups that support the monarchy and popular protests led by students and youth groups.

The ruling sparked protests in the Thai capital Bangkok last weekend, one of the largest protests in recent months, as student groups said they rejected the ruling.

Student and youth groups in protests since 2020 have been calling for the resignation of the current government led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and for reform of the monarchy.

Some of the demands include abolishing the country’s harsh lèse majesté law – which can lead to up to 15 years in prison for defaming, threatening or insulting top royals – and the redistribution of the state budget allocated to the monarchy towards other public goods.

Thailand’s Constitutional Court on 10 November ruled that the speeches by three political activists – human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, Ramkhamhaeng University student Panupong ‘Mike’ Jadnok and Thammasat University student Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul – during street protests, and specifically at a rally at Thammasat University in August 2020, were an act of “subversion and insurrection against the established authorities” and an “abuse of freedom”, undermining the democratic system with the king as head of state.

At a landmark rally at Bangkok’s Thammasat University on 10 August 2020, Panusaya read out a set of 10 demands that included reform of the monarchy, breaking a longstanding taboo in openly talking about the monarchy in Thailand.

One of the court judges, in a televised reading of the ruling on the court’s YouTube channel, said: “The Thai monarchy is an indispensable pillar in the democratic regime of government. Therefore, in any action – whether spoken, written – with the intent to result in undermining, making inferior, or weakening of the institution, there is an intention to overthrow the monarchy.”

The court ordered the defendants’ action, which in effect has finished, to be ceased and for future similar actions to be prevented. Although the Constitutional Court ruling does not carry criminal sanction, it has binding power on other courts as well as other authorities.

A local legal aid group which represented the three in court suggested that the charge of treason, which carries the death penalty or life imprisonment, might in the future be applied to activists and other organisations advocating for reform of the monarchy in a similar manner.

Student unions push back

Shortly after the ruling, 23 student organisations around the country, including the student council at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and at Thammasat University, issued a joint statement rejecting the ruling and said the protest movement demanding reform of the monarchy would continue and grow.

They included student organisations at the universities of Khon Kaen, Maejo, Chiang Mai, Naresuan, Mahasarakham, Kasetsart and Prince of Songkla University.

It said the students were exercising their right to freedom of expression and demonstration, which was protected by the constitution, and they had no intention of overthrowing the government regime.

The statement added that the three defendants’ proposals for reform of the royal institution would actually promote its dignity and free it from criticism.

“We reject unfair trial proceedings and court rulings. We insist that the 10 demands for the monarchy reform [first outlined at the Thammasat University rally on 10 August 2020] are recommendations for the Monarchy of the Kingdom of Thailand to be able to maintain its dignity in a democratic regime long-established in [Thailand’s] history.

“The three defendants and the demonstrators only hoped that our king could be untainted and without accusations that would disgrace the sovereignty of the King,” the statement said.

Concerns over evidence and bias

One of the defendants, Panusaya, a leader of the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, said the ruling was “unacceptable” and claimed the court had only reviewed documentary evidence from state agencies prior to making the ruling.

“The law provides that the Constitutional Court uses the investigatory system in which the court has the power to seek evidence, and there must be opportunities for the parties to present evidence to fully contest the case according to the rule of law,” Panusaya said in a statement she read out in front of the Constitutional Court after the ruling.

“However, in reality, the court did not allow a hearing. They did not allow academics to provide historical perspectives and facts, which affects the right to a fair trial. The court argued that the case had sufficient evidence for a decision and therefore terminated the examination [of evidence], even though we had requested to present evidence from our side,” she said.

Munin Pongsapan, dean of the faculty of law at Thammasat University, pointed out that the Constitutional Court makes the position and role of the monarchy under Thailand’s democratic system more complicated than it should be.

He and others have noted the King is a symbolic institution under the constitutional monarchy, but the court ruling serves to elevate the King’s power and position by making the monarchy inviolable and untouchable.

“Furthermore, the defendants were accused of overthrowing the regime, which is a highly serious offence. Unofficially we can say it is treason. I think that with such serious accusations, the court must provide the chance for the defendants to defend their case,” said Munin in an interview with local online media Prachatai.

In response to the ruling, a network of legal scholars jointly signed a public statement calling the court’s decision “unconstitutional”, undermining the rule of law and freedom of speech. Deans of the faculty of laws in various universities also voiced “grave concerns” on the consequences of the ruling.

“We consider the ruling to be severely contrary to fundamental legal principles as it does not aim to defend the rights and freedoms of the people. This will also cause conflicts in Thai society to spread and become more intense in the near future,” according to the statement jointly signed by 70 legal scholars.

Bail rejection

The request to review the activists’ 2020 speeches was filed by an individual, Natthaphon Toprayoon, a lawyer, which was accepted by the court. He earlier filed a similar motion requesting a review of the actions of an opposition party, Future Forward Party, which is now dissolved.

Panusaya on 15 November was sent back to the Women’s Correctional Institution following the rejection of a bail request under a separate case of lèse majesté in which she was charged with wearing a crop-top at a protest in December 2020 – echoing a widely circulated image of the informal attire of the current king before he ascended the throne.

Panusaya had previously been detained for 60 days in another lèse majesté case before being temporarily released.

The two other defendants, Arnon Nampa and Panupong Jadnok, have been in prison for almost four months for other cases relating to the lèse majesté law.

The authorities have charged 1,636 individuals in 895 cases for involvement in political protests and expression since July 2020. Currently, 25 of them are detained in prison, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a local legal aid group.