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Thailand Sentences Man To 50 Years For Criticizing the Monarchy


In a stunning blow to free speech, a Thailand court has just handed down the harshest punishment ever under the country’s notorious lèse-majesté laws.

A man has been condemned to languish behind bars for what will likely be the rest of his life – all for words posted online. How did a Facebook post lead to five decades in jail? This draconian sentence spotlights Thailand’s iron-fisted enforcement of its anti-royal insult laws. But it also serves as a dire warning to any who dare speak out against the powerful monarchy. 

As activists call for reform, we examine the case that earned one man a half-century prison term – and what it signifies for Thailand’s future.

In a shocking blow against free expression, a Thai court has just imposed the harshest lèse-majesté punishment in the country’s history. A man has been sentenced to 50 years behind bars for online posts deemed insulting to the monarchy.

This staggering sentence spotlights Thailand’s severe lèse-majesté laws, which shield the royal family from criticism at the expense of basic civil liberties. But it also serves as a dire warning – daring to speak out against the powerful monarchy can still destroy lives, even in today’s Thailand.

Back in January 2023, the Chiang Rai Provincial Court convicted Mongkol Thirakot, a 30 year-old Thai man, on 14 counts of lèse-majesté.

His crime? Making Facebook posts about the royal family deemed “damaging” to the monarch. For this, he was condemned to 28 years in prison.

But Mongkol’s ordeal wasn’t over. On Thursday, the Court of Appeal found him guilty on 11 more lèse-majesté charges. As punishment, they tacked on an extra 22 years – bringing Mongkol’s total sentence to a jaw-dropping 50 years.

To put this in perspective, 50 years is effectively a life sentence for Mongkol.

The previous lèse-majesté record was 43 years, sentenced just two years ago. Yet Mongkol’s case surpasses even that – the harshest lèse-majesté penalty ever imposed.
The law is so strict that it’s become a common occurrence in Thailand to see people getting prosecuted for doing as much as subtly criticizing the monarchy.

Back in December, a member of the progressive Move Forward Party in Thailand was given a 6-year prison sentence this week for allegedly insulting the monarchy.

According to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, 29-year-old lawmaker Rukchanok Srinok was convicted by a Criminal Court of violating the country’s strict lèse-majesté laws against criticizing royalty.

The charges related to two social media posts Rukchanok made on the platform X, in 2020 that were deemed offensive to the monarchy. Rukchanok was found guilty of violating both the lèse-majesté laws as well as Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act through her online posts.

Her story seems oddly similar to Mongkol’s situation right now.

But what exactly did Mongkol post that was so offensive? The public doesn’t know; the posts remain secret.

But under Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws, even mundane criticism of the royal family is forbidden. Just asking questions or voicing opinions about royals can be deemed an insult – and talking openly is incredibly risky.

The Thai public was shocked when news broke of Mongkol’s sentence. But for those familiar with Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws, the outcome was less surprising.

Despite recent calls to reform the draconian legislation, Thailand’s military-aligned government continues cracking down harshly on perceived royal insults.

Mongkol’s half-century prison term is only the latest example.

Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws are some of the world’s toughest. These laws make defaming, insulting, or threatening the royal family a crime punishable by years in prison.

Thailand’s criminal code states that anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent” will be “punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”

But in practice, the enforcement is often far more severe. Each individual post, text, share or utterance deemed offensive is counted as a separate violation. People are routinely prosecuted for dozens or even hundreds of counts.

Mongkol, for example, was initially convicted on 14 separate charges on the basis of over 27 separate posts he made on Facebook. This allows harsh sentences up to 150 years in prison, essentially a life term.

These laws date back over a century, to Thailand’s absolute monarchy era. But prosecution has skyrocketed since the last military coup in 2014.

The junta used lèse-majesté charges to crush dissent and ban criticism of the new regime. When King Bhumibol passed away in 2016, after 70 years on the throne, prosecutions swelled further as ultra-royalists looked to secure the new king’s position.

Even with Thailand returning to elected governance in 2019, lèse-majesté charges have continued unabated under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta head turned civilian leader.

Last year saw the second highest number of lèse-majesté cases on record, over 100 prosecutions. The punishments remain severe, with an average prison sentence of over six years.

But many are still calling for an end to the authoritarian law, from human rights organizations to streets flooded with protestors.

To some, Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws are vital for protecting the monarchy. Royalist traditionalists argue that preserving reverence for the king helps maintain harmony and unity in Thailand.

But modern critics insist these laws do far more harm than good. Human rights groups, legal scholars, and pro-democracy activists have all urgently called for lèse-majesté reform in recent years.

One key argument is that political elites weaponize lèse-majesté laws to silence opposition. Charges are routinely used to target dissidents, journalists, activists, and other critics of those in power.

Observers say allegations of royal insults serve as a pretense to punish those who challenge the status quo. The vague, malleable nature of the laws facilitate this abuse.

Even members of the public can bring lèse-majesté complaints on the king’s behalf. There is no verification process or oversight. This enables political witch hunts, personal vendettas, and rampant misuse. It also discourages open inquiry and free expression. Academics, writers, and media self-censor when discussing the monarchy rather than risk prosecution.

Many cases highlight how lèse-majesté charges relate more to partisan politics than protecting royalty.

In 2020, youth-led pro-democracy rallies demanded government reform, including monarchy reform, which then drew intense backlash.

Protest leaders faced waves of lèse-majesté cases from ultra-royalists. More cases came after the progressive Move Forward Party made unprecedented calls for amending lèse-majesté laws.

At least 262 people have been charged with the anti-dissent law during that time.

One of the most prominent cases was Activist and lawyer Arnon Nampa, who has become a prime example of how the lèse-majesté laws are used to harshly punish dissent.

In September 2022, Arnon was sentenced to 4 years in prison simply for giving a speech in 2020 that called for reform of the monarchy. This was an early public plea for change during recent mass protests.

Even worse, just this week Arnon received another 4 year sentence over some Facebook posts that criticized Thailand’s use of the draconian Section 112 law against lèse-majesté and questioned the royal budget.

Arnon’s case illustrates the injustice of current enforcement and the urgent need for change. If not, this has wide-ranging impacts in Thailand.

Lèse-majesté laws curb free expression and access to information about the wealthy, powerful monarchy. The royal family’s finances, political role, land holdings, and other issues remain off-limits for public scrutiny. Those who raise questions or voice criticism face severe punishment.

The harsh penalties for perceived royal insults also enable wider suppression of dissent.

Lèse-majesté charges are routinely used against activists and other government critics unrelated to the monarchy. The mere threat discourages open opposition.

For a country known for its beauty, culture, and vibrancy, its political landscape is far from vibrant.

Without lèse-majesté reform, observers worry Thailand cannot fulfill its promise of becoming a true open society.

The severity of enforcement creates a climate of fear. People censor themselves rather than risk crossing invisible lines. The disproportional sentences represent an assault on justice and rule of law. And the frequent political abuse of charges corrodes Thailand’s democratic institutions.

The searing injustice of Mongkol’s recent 50-year sentence encapsulates much of what is wrong with lèse-majesté law in Thailand.

His imprisonment represents an extraordinary attack on free expression and an appalling abuse of the legal system. The details of the case illustrate why reforming lèse-majesté remains so critical, despite recent government inaction.

With Mongkol’s draconian punishment igniting outrage, Thailand’s lese-majesté reckoning may have finally arrived.

This case represents both a nadir in the law’s misuse, as well as the chance for a new direction. The opportunity for progress is clear – the question is whether Thailand has the will to seize it.

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