Thai court issues warrants after protesters tackle royal taboos

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Aug 19 2020 05:12 PM

Police patrol a pro-democracy rally in Bangkok, Aug. 16, 2020. Demonstrators are demanding change in a country with a long history of suppressing dissent. Some protesters are even defying the taboo against criticizing the monarchy. Adam Dean, The New York Times

BANGKOK - A Thai court issued arrest warrants Wednesday for 6 pro-democracy activists involved in recent rallies that have seen frank discussion of the monarchy and calls for an overhaul of the government.

The near-daily demonstrations by a youth-led pro-democracy movement have been largely tolerated by authorities so far, but police said Wednesday they now had warrants to arrest half a dozen of the most prominent protesters.

They will be charged with "sedition, computer crimes act, violating the diseases control act and using loudspeakers", Pathum Thani provincial police commander Chayut Marayat told AFP.

While the use of punitive lese majeste legislation has slowed in recent years, legal observers say the military-aligned government has stepped up other legal mechanisms to target dissent -- including using sedition and computer crime laws.

Two of the warrants issued Wednesday are for protesters previously arrested and bailed -- human rights lawyer Anon Numpa and student leader Panupong Jadnok -- but they now face fresh charges related to a rally on Aug. 10 at Thammasat University.

That rally drew some 5,000 supporters who listened as Anon and Panupong talked about reform of the kingdom's monarchy -- a taboo topic in Thailand.

Speakers at weeks of rallies have been openly critical of the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha -- a former army chief who seized power in a 2014 coup.

At the Thammasat rally, however, they also demanded greater accounting of palace finances and the abolition of the controversial royal defamation laws, which carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn sits at the apex of Thai power, buttressed by a powerful arch-royalist military and the country's billionaire clans. 

Since he ascended the throne in 2016, the king has made unprecedented changes to the institution -- including amassing direct control of the palace's fortune, which is estimated to be worth up to $60 billion. 

So far, none of the pro-democracy activists have been charged with royal defamation, but their demands have angered pro-royalist supporters and spurred several smaller counter-protests.