Thai ‘lèse-majesté law’ violates youth human rights

Written by Leticia Cox

On March 28, 2023, the police arrested Thanalop “Yok” Phalanchai, a 15-year-old student activist, for allegedly defaming the monarchy. Yok is detained in pretrial custody at the Justice Ministry’s Ban Pranee Juvenile Vocational Training Center for Girls in Nakhon Pathom province, west of Bangkok. She is facing up to 15 years in prison.

Yok is accused of violating article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code -defaming and insulting the monarchy- during a demonstration in October 2022 in front of the Bangkok City Hall.

Photo by @Leticia Cox

Why does Thailand have this law?

The monarch has an exalted status in Thai society. The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October 2016, was accorded an almost divine reverence, sometimes treated as god-like.

Adulyadej’s son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, does not relish the same popularity and has reigned since his father’s death, exercising limited rule since December 2016. He is the head of state, assisted in his duties by the Privy Council of Thailand, but still holds a sacred status in the country.

Today, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with a democratic form of government. The monarch reigns but does not rule. 

In May 2014, the military – greatly royalist- overthrew the civilian government. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has highlighted that the lese-majeste law is needed to protect the royals.

In November 2020, Prime Minister Prayut instructed authorities to use all laws against democracy protesters, bringing back lèse-majesté prosecution under Article 112 of the penal code after a three-year pause. 

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 1,895 individuals have been subject to various criminal charges for their involvement in rallies since 2020. Among these individuals, at least 237 have been charged with lèse-majesté for actions at pro-democracy demonstrations or comments on social media, including 18 children. 

In addition, making critical or offensive comments about the monarchy is a serious criminal offence under the Computer-Related Crime Act. 2560. Authorities have since charged some political activists with treason under Article 116 of the penal code. 

Judicial interpretation of lèse-majesté offences seems to vary according to interpretations by different courts, making convictions arbitrary and sometimes going beyond what is stipulated in the law. In September 2022, the Bangkok South Criminal Court sentenced Jatuporn Sae-Ung to three years on lèse-majesté charges for wearing a Thai national dress at a democracy protest in a context that authorities claimed was done to mock Queen Suthida.

Democratic Labor Organization Asking the government to help bail political prisoners. Photo by Prachatai

Holding Yok charged with lèse-majesté in pretrial detention violates her rights under international human rights law. 

Under Article 2.2 of the Convention on the Human Rights of the Child, State Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure a child -every human under 18 years of age- is protected against all punishments based on their express opinion. 

In addition, The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand has ratified, also encourages bail for criminal suspects. Article 9 states: “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial.” 

Those whose charges have not been dropped should be tried without undue delay. 

“The Thai government should permit peaceful expression of political views, including questions about the monarchy,” said the director of Human Rights Watch. “Thai authorities should engage with United Nations specialists and others about amending the lèse-majesté law to comply with international human rights standards.”

Yok’s case is not an isolated incident. In 2020, a 16-year-old boy was criminally charged under the same law after he was accused of dressing similarly to King Maha Vajiralongkorn and displaying offensive words on his body. 

In January 2021, the Bangkok Criminal Court sentenced a 65-year-old former civil servant to a jail term of 43 years and six months—the country’s harshest ever sentence for insulting the monarchy.

On June 2022, three Thai influencers were arrested for insulting the royal family in a video campaign posted on TikTok.

On March 2023, a man was sentenced to three years imprisonment for selling calendars via a Facebook page that the authorities considered violating the lèse-majesté law. The calendar featured cartoon illustrations of a yellow duck, symbolising Thailand’s protest movement. 

Thailand’s lese-majeste law, which prohibits any offence against the dignity of the monarchy, is among the most draconian in the world.

Amnesty International’s recent report “We Are Reclaiming Our Future” reported how children in Thailand face a wide range of severe repercussions for participating in mass demonstrations, including illegalising their activities and intimidation by the police.

The report calls for the Thai authorities to withdraw all charges against peaceful child protesters, end all forms of intimidation and surveillance and amend laws to deny children’s right to protest to ensure they align with international human rights law and standards.

Thai lèse-majesté law

— A Constitutional Court decision in 2012. Section 112 of Thai Criminal Code currently reads as follows: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”

**Lèse-majesté or lese-majesty is an offence against the dignity of a ruling head of state or the state itself. The English name for this crime is a borrowing from the French, where it means “a crime against The Crown.”


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