Pongsak Sriboonpeng said the mistake that led to his 30-year prison sentence was having the wrong Facebook friend.
Sriboonpeng, a self-described "red shirt" supporter of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had angry commentary on the social networking site, including six postings that were later deemed to have defamed the royal family. When he was arrested, the Facebook friend was one of the officers who interrogated him.
Sriboonpeng’s sentence — an initial 60 years, halved after he pleaded guilty — is the harshest of its kind recorded in the country’s history. It is part of a dramatic rise in arrests and convictions in Thailand for “lèse majesté,” or insulting the monarchy.
The crackdown has been enabled by sweeping new powers the military granted itself after a May 2014 coup, and what government officials say is a junta-ordered campaign to more vigorously police online offenses. Military courts, which since the coup hear many lèse majesté cases, are handing down sentences of as many as 10 years for a single offense. When it comes to online platforms such as Facebook, multiple postings deemed critical of the monarchy can earn someone 10 years for each comment, served consecutively. That has led to record-breaking sentences.
Many of the suspects arrested since the coup were detained without charge, held by the army without access to lawyers and, in many cases, forced to hand over passwords to their online accounts, according to defense lawyers and a legal watchdog group monitoring these cases. Both Sriboonpeng and a woman detained in a separate lèse majesté case said they were forced to reveal their passwords to their interrogators.
The targets of the law are increasingly ordinary people, many of them red-shirt supporters of Thaksin, rather than prominent individuals, said David Streckfuss, an independent academic in the Thai city of Khon Kaen who researches lèse majesté. In Thailand, the royalist establishment backed by the military has repeatedly tried to neutralize the political machine of Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, who were both elected prime minister with broad rural support, only to be toppled by military coups.
Since the military takeover 15 months ago, 53 people have been investigated for royal insults, at least 40 of whom allegedly posted or shared comments online, according to iLaw, a Bangkok-based legal monitoring group. The majority of these cases have resulted in charges. In the seven years and five months prior, 75 people were investigated, 27 of them for online activity.
Critics of the junta say lèse majesté laws, often seen by the world as a quirk of Thai society, are being wielded by the generals as an instrument to crush dissent. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly called for stronger prosecution of lèse majesté since taking power in a military coup in May last year.
The army said it seized control to end a decade of sometimes violent political turmoil.
The health of 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who the palace recently said was treated for “water on the brain,” has added to the political uncertainty shrouding Thailand since the coup. So has a recent bombing in downtown Bangkok that killed 20 people and injured more than 100.
The number of lèse majesté cases in Thailand has spiked during a period in which the military, which has staged a dozen successful coups since 1932, has enjoyed a level of control not seen in decades. Many lèse majesté arrests since the coup have been carried out under martial law, which was in place until April and allowed the army to detain people for up to seven days without charging them, according to iLaw.
The military courts that are now trying lèse majesté cases, like that of Sriboonpeng, have been criticized by the United Nations for failing “to meet international human rights standards, including the right to a fair trial.” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said last month that the trials were generally closed with “very little scrutiny” and that in most cases the accused were “denied bail. So they are held for a prolonged period, certainly a lot of pressure is applied on them to make their guilty pleas," she said.
As was the case under civilian rule, those accused of lèse majesté often plead guilty in the hope their sentences will be reduced, and they may receive a royal pardon sometime in the future. So far, Thailand watchers are not aware of a royal pardon being granted since the coup to someone convicted of lèse majesté.
Prior to the coup, “police needed to gather evidence before they arrested someone,” said Sasinan Thamnithinan from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which has defended the majority of people accused of lèse majesté since the coup, including Pongsak.
“But the military has been able to do anything,” she said. “The military arrests you, gets your Facebook and other passwords, accesses them, prints things out and gets you to sign that it’s yours. After that they go to the court, get a warrant, and then they send you to the police.”