BANGKOK - A 16-year-old Thai is potentially facing jail for allegedly defaming the country's King Maha Vajiralongkorn by wearing a crop top, as Thailand’s youth-driven pro-democracy protests are gradually being quashed by a royalist establishment armed with draconian laws.
The country’s lèse-majesté law, known better as “112,” after its section in the Thai criminal code, carries three to 15 years in jail for each charge of “defaming, insulting or threatening” key players in the palace, effectively shielding the powerful monarchy from criticism.
Lèse-majesté allegations have been filed against at least 71 protesters, with seven key leaders denied bail so far as they await trial.
The alleged crime of the teenager -- whose identity VOA News is withholding, as he is a minor -- was to wear a crop top at a protest with an anti-monarchy slogan written on his stomach.
That was deemed an insult to the king, who has been repeatedly shown in European media wearing a crop top while overseas.
“Why am I being punished for having a different opinion?” he asked.
“I’m not afraid for myself, but I’m scared others will end up like me. I’m scared this might be the reason people might not come out to protest anymore,” he told VOA last month.
The youth is expected to learn Monday whether he will be formally charged by a court, which can then also deny him bail. He is believed to be the youngest protester so far to face the hardline law.
At their peak last year Thailand’s protests rattled the government and caught the royalist establishment off-balance.
The protests began by calling for the government of the prime minister, ex-army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha, to quit and the Thai Senate to be elected instead of hand-picked, but quickly morphed into calls for the monarchy to be constrained under the constitution.
Their attacks on the palace are unprecedented, with protesters using anti-monarchy slogans and memes, shouting “My Taxes” and wielding banners urging an end to the 112 law, once unthinkable acts of defiance against the top of the Thai power pyramid.
Protester numbers have ebbed to just thousands, as the royal defamation law picks off their leadership and scares many from attending rallies.
Those who remain on the streets are increasingly angry at the wielding of the law.
Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons at protesters Saturday near the Grand Palace in Bangkok, while on Wednesday demonstrations pulled around 10,000 people to a downtown intersection, many scrawling anti-112 slogans on the road in chalk.
According to the teen facing the courts, the problem of Section 112 “is it’s a law designed to maintain inequality and when there’s no equality, the law can be used to apply differently to different human beings.”
In Thailand, kings have for generations had a semi-divine status despite in theory being outside politics under a 1932 constitution.
Yet in practice the ultra-rich monarchy gives the nod to promotions of army generals, signs off on coups and draws on the loyalty of judges and billionaire tycoons in one of Asia’s most unequal societies.
Thailand is a split kingdom where many still profess total loyalty to the monarchy, and royalists have trolled the teen despite his young age, calling him a “nation-hater” on social media among other slurs. Critics say the royal defamation law is rotten and smothers open discussion on the pivotal issue of Thailand’s future.
Section 112 is broadly worded and encompasses all manner of perceived infringements -- from sharing a tweet to wearing a crop top -- and any member of the public can file a complaint to police or the courts, who rarely throw out an allegation no matter how spurious.
For the first four years of Vajiralongkorn’s reign, no new 112 convictions were recorded, but the law is now being seen as a steamroller on the protests.
In a possible sign of the mood of the courts, a 60-year-old woman was sentenced in January to a record 87 years in jail for posting defamatory clips on social media. Her sentence was halved after she pleaded guilty.
“Criminal punishment is meant for those who commit a violent crime,” said Pornpen Kongkachornkiet, director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, a Thai human rights organization.
“Speaking or dressing a certain way is neither violent nor immoral. Freedom of expression in this country is so low to be almost nonexistent.”
In its annual report, Freedom House downgraded Thailand to “Not Free,” in large part because of the use of the lèse-majesté law, while United Nations human rights experts last month said they were “profoundly disturbed” by the rise in prosecutions.