Earlier this week, hundreds of Thai protesters shouted at the royal motorcade of King Maha Vajiralongkorn in a show of unprecedented open dissent towards the monarchy as anti-government sentiment is on the rise across the country.
The continuing protests have prompted the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to declare a state emergency on Thursday, and order the arrest of activists and their supporters.
For months, the demonstrators have been demanding the resignation of Prayuth, a former military general and coup leader, and reforms to the country’s centuries-old monarchy, including an amendment, if not the abolition of the controversial lese majeste law.
So, what is Thailand’s lese majeste law, and is it being used by the government to silence dissent?
The Thai monarchy is protected by Section 112 of the country’s Penal Code, which says whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years.
The law against royal insults has been present in Thai criminal codes since the early 1900s when Thailand was known as Siam.
In June this year, Prayuth suddenly announced the law has been suspended upon the instructions of the new king. But that has not stopped the protests, nor the arrests.
According to a Bangkok Post report, since Prayuth led a coup in 2014, more than 90 people have been prosecuted under the lese majeste law, and at least 43 of them have been sentenced.
The king is described in Thailand’s constitution as “enthroned in a position of revered worship”. Thai royalist traditionalists see the monarchy as a sacred institution.
The monarchy has deep roots in Thailand, where kings held absolute power for hundreds of years before a 1932 revolution.
Since then, Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy with the king as the head of state, although King Maha retains a powerful and influential role.
The current king’s father, the highly-revered Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016, had also remarked in 2005 that the government should stop invoking the lese majeste law, saying it damages the monarchy as an institution.
On Tuesday, King Maha made a public appearance to mark the fourth death anniversary of his father – the event that sparked the latest anti-government protests.
Prosecution under the law
There were only occasional prosecutions before 2014, when Prayuth took power in a coup, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group.
Many of those convicted at the time were pardoned by the then-King Bhumibol.
But between the 2014 coup and early 2018, at least 98 lese majeste charges were filed, according to a legal database by Thai watchdog iLaw.
Human rights groups said many of those cases were used to persecute opponents to the military government, an allegation the military government denied. Among prosecutions was one for defaming the late king’s pet dog.
In a high-profile lese majeste case in 2011, a 61-year-old Thai man, Ampon Tangnoppakul, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly sending four text messages deemed to have been offensive to the royal family.
The following year, Ampon died of liver cancer in prison, still claiming he was innocent of all charges.
The most recent royal insult case was prosecuted in March 2018 against two men for trying to burn pictures of the king, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
A local court dropped the royal insult charge but found both guilty of being part of a criminal organisation and arson.
According to the lese majeste law, anyone can file a complaint against others without being the damaged party, a provision that critics say is being abused by royalists and the current government.
Rights groups also said opponents of the government have recently been charged under other laws such as those against sedition and computer crimes.
Last year, three exiled Thai activists facing charges of insulting the monarchy disappeared in Vietnam after reportedly being arrested over there.
According to Human Rights Watch, the three were reportedly turned over by Vietnam to Thai authorities. The Thai government has denied the report.
Also in January of 2019, the concrete-stuffed bodies of two exiled critics of the military and the royal family were discovered along the Mekong River border with Laos.
The government has said it does not target opponents and that it is the responsibility of the police to uphold the law.
But with protests growing even larger, the government is scrambling to find ways to contain dissent, raising fears of more crackdowns.