A well-known actress who is one of the most high-profile supporters of Thailand's pro-democracy protest movement answered a police summons Monday charging her with violating the country's harsh law against defaming the monarchy, even though she is not known to have spoken publicly about the royal institution.
Inthira "Sai" Charoenpura, who is also a singer, has drawn both praise and criticism for giving material support and raising funds for the student-led movement. Along with seven protest leaders, she presented herself at a police station in Bangkok to hear charges that they had violated the country's lese majeste law, which calls for a prison term of three to 15 years for defaming the king or members of his immediate family.
The law, known as Article 112, has long drawn criticism for its harshness and terms that let anyone file a complaint, allowing its use for partisan political purposes. Its use against Inthira appeared to be unprecedented since she was not directly tied to any comments about the monarchy. She has helped provide food, protective gear and other equipment for the protest rallies over several months that have attracted thousands of people.
Charging Inthira "sets a very disturbing precedent," said Sunai Phasuk, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, adding that it now seems that being an accessory to any actions that Thai authorities consider to be offensive to the monarchy are punishable. "So now the net is being cast very wide, much wider than ever before," he said.
Inthira refused to sign a legal document acknowledging she has been charged.
"It is ridiculous that I supplied food and got this charge. Does it mean anybody can face the same situation if they are not on the government's side?" Inthira said. "I am not worried. I will continue supporting the rallies no matter what."
She said that as a consequence of supporting the rallies, about 70% of her work had been canceled.
Article 112 has not been invoked for almost three years, after King Maha Vajiralongkorn informed the government that he did not wish to see it used. But it was revived last month after Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that all laws would be employed to prosecute protesters who failed to respect other people's rights and liberties.
The legal aid group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights has tallied at least 35 individuals who have been charged under the lese majeste law since Nov. 24.
Although Inthira is not cited for any remarks about the monarchy, other protest leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of the institution, which they are demanding be reformed to make it accountable. They consider it a feudal institution unsuitable for a democratic state and accuse it of wielding too much power.
The protest movement has had three core demands: that Prayuth step down because they believe he was elected unfairly; that the constitution be amended to make it more democratic; and that the monarchy be reformed.
In recent weeks, protest leaders have put the focus on the monarchy, which is the most sensitive issue. Many Thais treat the monarchy with reverence, considering it an untouchable institution that is the heart and soul of the nation.
Until the middle of this year, when the protesters raised the issue, public criticism of it was unprecedented, There has been a sharp reaction from royalists, including the military, a dominant force in Thai politics, which considers defense of the monarchy to be one of its main missions.