If you live in Thailand and aren't keen on the country's monarchy, you should definitely think twice before letting your feelings be known on Facebook.
Thailand's 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyjadej is revered by many Thais. On Friday, military courts sentenced a Thai man and woman to 30 and 28 years in prison, respectively, for insulting the monarchy on the social media site. The rulings mark two of the most severe sentences ever passed under the kingdom's harsh royal defamation law.
On Friday morning, the Military Court of Bangkok ruled that Pongsak Sriboonpeng, a 48-year-old tour operator, was guilty of six counts of lèse-majesté (injured majesty) and was sentenced to 10-year prison terms for each count — that's 60 years in prison. However, since the suspect pleaded guilty to the charges, the sentence was halved to 30 years.
A few hours later in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that another military court had found Sasiwimol, a 29-year-old hotel employee whose last name is being withheld, guilty of seven counts of lèse-majesté. She was sentenced to a total of 56 years in prison before having her sentence commuted to 28 after also pleading guilty.
It is unclear precisely what in the Facebook posts gave offense, but the country's media is prohibited by law from reprinting or detailing such content.
Together, the two rulings mark the first and second longest sentences ever passed under the law, which is enshrined as Article 112 of Thailand's criminal code. The article states that anyone who "defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the heir apparent, or the regent" will face up to 15 years in prison for each indictment.
Friday's two sentences come just a few days after a man with a long history of mental illness was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly slashing a portrait of the king and queen, and only a few months after a businessman in the northern city of Chiang Rai was sentenced to 25 years for posting allegedly defamatory Facebook messages about the monarchy.
According to Yingcheet, project manager of iLaw, a local rights group that closely monitors cases under Article 112, the number of people being charged under the draconian law has risen dramatically since the May 2014 military coup.
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"The number [of cases] is going up very quickly," Yingcheet told VICE News. "In 2010 there were quite a few people being arrested under lèse-majesté law, but the total was still only 13."
After 2010, which Yingcheet describes as the last major swell in lèse-majesté charges, the numbers dropped substantially. "Just before the coup, there were just five people in prison under lèse-majesté and only two ongoing prosecutions," he said.
Those numbers have since risen substantially. "The total number of people who have been charged under lèse-majesté is now at 51, since the coup," says Yingcheet. "Four were released, three have been bailed out, and one case was suspended." The rest, he explains, have their cases ongoing, or are already serving their prison terms.
The military took power on May 22, 2014, after months of antigovernment protests rocked the country. The military then vowed to return stability and "bring happiness" to the people. The junta leader and now prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has regularly stressed that the lèse-majesté law was absolutely necessary to protect the royal family.
Others, however, see the law as a means to stifle any criticism of those who rule, as opposed to those who simply reign.
Earlier in the year, Sulak Sivaraksa, a veteran social activist in Thailand, told VICE News that since Article 112 was introduced in the country's first criminal code in 1908, it has been regularly used by successive governments to silence dissent, an opinion echoed by many other critics of the law.
"Every government says they love the king, admire the monarchy," he told VICE News. "But this law helps those in power. Article 112 of the criminal court is very helpful for the powers that be, to get rid of someone."
The law, which has remained virtually unchanged for more than 100 years, doesn't specify what constitutes an insult or a threat and as such, critics say, it can be easily abused.
"Dictators don't allow voices of dissent," Sulak tells VICE News. "Dictators love this law to oppress other people."
Sulak has himself been charged with lèse-majesté no fewer than three times and has even had to flee the country before out of fear for his life, a not uncommon event in the aftermath of such a charge.
Sulak tells VICE News that he doesn't see Article 112 being scrapped or even reformed any time soon, explaining such an action would go against the ruling elite's own power interests and, as such, provides little to no incentive. "The man who can do it must have moral courage, and I just don't see any of them with that," he said.
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