BANGKOK - Billionaire Thai pro-democracy champion Thanathorn Jungroongruangkit on Wednesday evening defended his questioning of a vaccine company owned by the king after he was hit Wednesday with a wave of charges for royal defamation.
Earlier Wednesday, the government had filed multiple charges alleging that Thanathorn had breached the kingdom’s draconian royal defamation law by criticizing the country’s vaccine strategy in a Facebook Live video.
The charges came as Thailand's establishment tries to extinguish rampant criticism of the monarchy and the lèse-majesté law shielding it.
The move is the latest in dozens of cases brought in recent weeks by the royalist establishment struggling to quash an anti-government movement that has roused unprecedented public criticism of the monarchy’s wealth and political influence with calls for the palace to be put under the constitution.
Thanathorn’s latest legal troubles came after a court Tuesday jailed Anchan Preelert, a former civil servant, for more than 43 years for sharing audio clips seen as defamatory to the monarchy. The sentence is the longest recorded under the lèse-majesté law, which is aimed at shielding the monarchy from criticism, and is widely seen as a warning to the mainly young protesters who massed on Thailand’s streets for much of last year to end their brazen attacks on the monarchy.
Thanathorn was banned from politics by Thai courts and his Future Foward party disbanded, less than a year after the party came from nowhere to garner 6 million votes -- mainly among millennials -- in a 2019 election.
Under Wednesday’s 10 charges, which carry up to 15 years per conviction of “defaming, threatening or insulting” key royals, including King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Thanathorn could face more than a century in jail.
In a rare move the charges were filed with police -- the first step toward a formal charge -- directly by the government after Thanathorn held a Facebook Live seminar on the potential for a conflict of interest in the award of a contract to develop a homegrown vaccine to Siam Bioscience, in which the immensely wealthy Vajiralongkorn is the only shareholder.
In his Facebook Live session Monday, Thanathorn asked whether a royalist government headed by ex-army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha could be counted on to hold the company accountable in the event of problems with “unfair distribution, side effects, or other unexpected outcomes,” given who its shareholder is.
The questioning of the monarchy in the potentially lucrative vaccine market brought a swift response from the government.
“Thanathorn distorted facts and caused misunderstanding among people,” Suporn Atthawong, a minister in the prime minister’s office, told reporters on Wednesday after filing Section 112 charges with police.
“He violated the monarchy, which upset Thai people who love and protect the monarchy,” he added.
A day earlier Prayuth, an ex-army chief who led a 2014 coup endorsed by the palace, had warned legal charges were coming.
“Everything he [Thanatorn] said was misinformation, no facts at all. I will have anyone who disseminates misinformation prosecuted,” he said.
Thanathorn hit back late Wednesday.
“The more you try to discredit me or harass me with charges, the more it make you look suspicious. Why does the state have to go these lengths to defend a private company?” he said in a Facebook post.
In his latest Facebook post, Wednesday night, he said, "I was just being curious about how the government is handling the vaccine, but I got charged for it."
Warning for protesters seen
Experts say the courts are getting tough on sentences for 112 -- as the law is more commonly known -- as a warning to the youth protesters, to seed fear and stub out flashmobs attacking the 112 law as well as the palace it protects.
Authorities “are using lèse-majesté prosecutions as their last resort … in response to the youth-led democracy uprising that seeks to curb the king’s powers and keep him within the bounds of constitutional rule,” said Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
The legal noose is tightening around critics of the monarchy, by some estimates the world’s richest, as Thailand’s top institution reasserts its power after months of being put off balance by the protesters’ angry, satirical attacks -- which include speeches, banners and online memes.
Their rallies, which at their peak drew tens of thousands, were drifting toward violent confrontation with royalists before they were suspended while Thailand battles a resurgence of the COVID-19 virus.
But protesters have turned to guerrilla tactics during the lull, hanging banners from exclusive shopping malls and daubing their discontent with the 112 law which is being pointed at them on walls.
Attapon Buapat, a key protest leader, told VOA that the latest show of legal force by the state will not “deter” the movement.
He also said it would not deter him personally, although he faces multiple Section 112 charges, adding, “We should not fear to fight for what we believe.”