Thai opposition figure indicted for questioning royal link to COVID vaccine

Subel Rai Bhandari and Nontarat Phaicharoen
Share on WhatsApp
Share on WhatsApp
Thai opposition figure indicted for questioning royal link to COVID vaccine Billionaire Thai opposition figure Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit addresses supporters during an unauthorized flash mob rally in downtown Bangkok, Dec. 14, 2019.

A Thai court indicted a prominent opposition figure Monday on charges of defaming the monarchy and committing cybercrime, more than a year after he spoke out about a COVID-19 vaccine produced by a company owned by the crown. 

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was charged with royal defamation under Section 112 (Lese-Majeste) of the Criminal Code as well as the Computer Crime Act over comments he made during a live-streaming event via Facebook on Jan. 18, 2021, according to the charge sheet viewed by BenarNews.

“The case against me is politically motivated. … It’s clear that I am one of the key opposition [figures], and I think the objective is to silence me to make the public afraid,” Thanathorn said outside the court after posting 90,000 baht (U.S. $2,676) bail.

During last year’s online debate, Thanathorn, the former leader of the disbanded Future Forward Party questioned the government’s pandemic policy. The topic of the live-streaming event was “Royal Vaccine: Who Gains and Who Loses.”

That policy included choosing Siam Bioscience Co., Ltd., which is owned by the Crown Property Bureau, to collaborate with British-Swedish AstraZeneca to produce as many as 200 million vaccine doses a year, a government spokesman said.

“What I did was intended for public benefit and to protect the royal institution,” Thanathorn said Monday, denying that he had insulted the monarchy and that his criticism was directed at the government.

“So many people in Thailand over the past three years have been charged under Section 112, and I think these charges are against human rights principles,” said Thanathorn, 43, a billionaire whose company is an auto parts maker.

“If this were a democratic government, it would not happen,” said Thanathorn, who saw his party – the third largest at the time – ordered dissolved by a court in February 2020 over loans he had provided to it. He has been banned from politics for 10 years.

Monday’s bail condition prohibits him from saying or doing anything that could harm the monarchy.

Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code relates to Lese-Majeste, a law which makes it illegal to defame, insult or threaten the monarchy and allows a sentence of up to 15 years behind bars for each conviction. Similarly, violating cyber laws is punishable by up to five years in prison.

While Thanathorn is the top opposition figure to face a Lese-Majeste complaint, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said at least 173 people, including 13 juveniles, have been charged since street protests against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the constitution and the royals began in July 2020. Thanathorn has also been separately charged with sedition but has yet to stand trial in that case.

Charges against Thanathorn

The Office of the Attorney General filed the case against Thanathorn in the Criminal Court “for defamation, insult or malice” against the monarchy.

The indictment said that his statement “was intended to cause the public to doubt the king” regarding whether the monarchy was involved in the government’s actions, using the budget to support the production and supply of the vaccines by Siam Bioscience. It called Thanathorn’s statements slanderous.

During the January 2021 live-stream, Thanathorn asked if Prayuth’s administration had chosen Siam Bioscience as a vaccine producer “to do someone a favor.” 

“Is this to generate political popularity or to really care about the Thai people?” he said at the time, adding that the government should have diversified its sources of vaccines.

Newin Chorchaithip, the deputy minister for digital economy and society, lodged a complaint with the Thai police that same week. 

“We gave police evidence that what Thanathorn said is inaccurate regarding the vaccine quality as well as his false claim that the institution is involved with the vaccine which made people wonder,” Newin told reporters at the time.

Thanathorn, meanwhile, defended his statement, saying the prime minister “always uses the monarchy to cover his mistakes and his administrative inefficiency, merely citing his loyalty and vowing to protect the institution.”

On Monday, he asked “all people to stand up and fight against the tyranny of Prayuth’s government.

“If we can keep silent, keep our mouths shut, they win,” he said. 

“Whether what I said had an impact on the people or not, people can decide for themselves. But we deny all allegations and we are ready to fight until the end, believing in our innocence,” Thanathorn said.

The court has scheduled June 6 as the day for evidence to be presented ahead of the trial.

Uayporn Satitpanyapan in Washington contributed to this report.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.