Thailand government files lese-majesty suit against banned opposition leader

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit faces prosecution for criticising role of company controlled by king in Covid-19 vaccine rollout

A prominent Thai opposition figure who was accused of breaching the country’s strict lese-majesty law after criticising the national vaccine strategy has said he is being targeted on political grounds.

Thailand’s government announced on Wednesday that it would file a lese-majesty complaint against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, days after he questioned the country’s approach to producing Covid-19 vaccines, which involves a company owned by the king.

Cases filed under the lese-majesty law, which shields Thailand’s powerful royal family from criticism, have increased over recent months, as the authorities have attempted to clamp down on a student-led pro-democracy movement that has made bold calls for reform of the monarchy.

Protesters have broken a longstanding taboo to call for the wealth and influence of the king to be curbed, arguing the institution should be accountable to the public.

Such comments carry huge legal risks. Under the law, anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent” can face up to 15 years on each charge.

The complaint against Thanathorn, who was banned from politics last year, comes after he criticised the decision to select Siam Bioscience to produce 200m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for Thailand and neighbouring countries. The company, which is owned by a subsidiary of the Crown Property Bureau, lacked vaccine-making experience and was given an unfair advantage, he said.

The Crown Property Bureau, which is worth tens of billions of dollars, falls under the direct control of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Government officials who filed the complaint said Thanathorn had defamed the monarchy in multiple remarks alleging it was involved in the vaccine strategy, Reuters reported.

“Thanathorn distorted facts and caused misunderstanding among people,” Suporn Atthawong, a minister in the prime minister’s office, said.

A representative of Siam Bioscience declined to respond to the claims. The company’s managing director, Songpon Deechongkit, said earlier this week he would not comment on the matter, adding: “We want to focus on our responsibility to produce the vaccine in time, with quality, with the appropriate amount.” Nakorn Premsri, director of the national vaccine institute, has previously rejected the allegations as baseless.

Prayuth Chan-ocha, the country’s prime minister, who first took power in a 2014 military coup, has threatened legal action against anyone who spreads false information about vaccination.

Thanathorn previously led Future Forward, which came third in the 2019 election after capturing the support of many young voters, but was disbanded last year by the constitutional court. The party was accused of violating electoral rules by receiving an illegal loan – a claim it denied.

At a press conference on Thursday, Thanathorn said that the lese-majesty complaint filed against him was “politically motivated” and that, since entering politics, he had faced countless charges under other laws.

The Progressive Movement, which Thanathorn now leads, denied that he had insulted the monarchy while speaking about Thailand’s vaccination strategy at a recent event.

Thailand’s lese-majesty law has one of the world’s strictest defamation criteria and carries severe sentences. On Tuesday, in a separate case, a former civil servant was sentenced to 43 years and six months for posting audio clips to Facebook and YouTube that contained comments deemed critical of the monarchy. A sentence of 87 years was announced initially, but this was halved because she pleaded guilty.

A government spokeswoman, Ratchada Dhanadirek, said prosecutions were a matter for the justice system, not the government.

Additional reporting by Navaon Siradapuvadol


Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok

The GuardianTramp

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