Thailand Accuses Main Opposition Figure of Insulting King Over Vaccine Comments

It’s the highest-profile lese-majeste case yet since a wave of anti-government protests took hold last year.
Thanathorn Juangroongruankit; Thailand;
Thanathorn Juangroongruankit stands next to a COVID-19 isolation chamber at a factory in Bangkok on Apr. 21, 2020. Photo: LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA

Thailand has accused the most prominent opposition figure in the country of defaming the powerful monarchy over comments suggesting links between the government’s coronavirus vaccine strategy and the palace’s business interests.

Authorities filed the complaint under the dreaded royal defamation law against billionaire opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit on Wednesday, his colleague confirmed.

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The law carries up to 15 years in prison per count and has been used in dozens of cases since late last year in what human rights groups say is an attempt to crush dissent after mass pro-democracy protests.

Thanathorn, who was banned from politics in a highly controversial court decision that also dissolved his hugely popular party, continues to be a thorn in the government’s side.

In a Facebook live presentation that included the phrase “Royal Vaccine: Who Benefits and Who Doesn’t?”, he questioned why a company that happens to be under royal ownership was chosen to locally manufacture millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

The government defended its strategy, and Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who took power in a 2014 military coup, vowed on Tuesday to prosecute “distorted” information about the campaign. Government officials accused Thanathorn of “politicizing” the vaccination plan.

Pannika Wanich, the former spokesperson of Thanathorn’s dissolved party, told VICE World News that their concerns were legitimate.

“This was not an issue or debate concerning the monarchy at all,” she said, adding that the royal insult law was being used as a “political tool to protect the government.”

“We raised the issue of conflict of interest over the government’s decision to choose private companies to produce vaccines. Citizens are entitled to raise questions, it’s as simple as that.”

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Thailand’s digital economy minister, who reportedly filed the complaint, could not be reached for comment.

Royal defamation cases are soaring in the Southeast Asian country.

This week saw a record verdict involving a former Thai civil servant who was jailed for 43 and a half years. Anchan Preelert, 63, was accused of posting a series of audio clips deemed defamatory to Thailand’s late King Bhumipol Adulyadej and arrested in 2015.

Royal defamation cases are soaring in the Southeast Asian country.

This week saw a record verdict involving a former Thai civil servant who was jailed for 43 and a half years. Anchan Preelert, 63, was accused of posting a series of audio clips deemed defamatory to Thailand’s late King Bhumipol Adulyadej and arrested in 2015.

The youth-led pro-democracy movement challenged the controversial law during mass protests in Thailand last year that focused on the wealth and political influence of Bhumibol’s son and successor King Maha Vajiralongkorn. While authorities initially avoided using Article 112, as the royal defamation law is known, that has changed in recent weeks.

The decision to charge Thanathorn was met with backlash from rights groups and critics. 

“The last few months have seen dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators, including minors, charged under lese-majeste,” said Charles Santiago, chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. 

“The authorities [have indicated] that they are willing to use the lese-majeste law to send a message to those protesting that no challenge to the establishment will be tolerated. [The charge against] Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is yet another illustration of the cynical weaponization of the law to stifle any form of criticism.”