Thai Opposition Figure Faces Royal Defamation Complaint over Vaccine Comments

BenarNews staff
Bangkok
2021-01-21
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Thai Opposition Figure Faces Royal Defamation Complaint over Vaccine Comments Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, founder of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party, is interviewed Bangkok after being accused of violating Thailand’s strict royal defamation law, Jan. 21, 2021.
AFP

A government official has lodged a complaint accusing a banned opposition leader of committing royal defamation and a computer crime through online comments where he expressed concerns about national efforts to acquire coronavirus vaccines.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of the Future Forward Party and an icon of the Thai pro-democracy movement, was the target of the complaint by Newin Chorchaithip, the deputy minister for Digital Economy and Society, on Wednesday.

The complaint, filed with the police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division, accused Thanathorn of disseminating false criticisms of the government’s acquisition plan for COVID-19 vaccines. No charges had been filed as of Thursday, according to authorities.

“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 on Wednesday. He was referring indirectly to the Crown Property Bureau, an agency that manages assets owned by the monarchy.

Newin declined to reveal full details of the complaint because, he said, Thailand’s harsh royal defamation law – known as Lese-Majeste – prohibits repetition of any content deemed as defamatory to the royals.

“Thanathorn distorted facts and caused misunderstanding among people,” Suporn Atthawong, a minister in the Prime Minister's office, told reporters on Wednesday, according to the Reuters news agency.

“He violated the monarchy, which upset Thai people who love and protect the monarchy.”

The deputy minister’s complaint came a day after Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the former junta chief who has been in power since he led a military coup in 2014, warned that anyone posting false information regarding vaccine arrangements would be prosecuted.

For his part, Thanathorn claimed that acquisition efforts would benefit a Thai pharmaceutical firm linked to the palace.  

“As a result of my Monday Facebook live, I was arbitrarily accused of violating Article 14 of the Computer Crimes Act and Article 112 of the Penal Code [Lese-Majeste],” Thanathorn told reporters on Thursday.

“I think the case is politically motivated. I believe in our innocence,” said Thanathorn, the co-founder of the disbanded Future Forward Party who has often spoken out against the government with deep ties to the military.

“First of all, to make our intention clear, we support negotiations for vaccines from various companies so that Thailand has many vaccines as soon as possible. … But when we raised the questions why the doses are few and the delivery is slow and that the government favors a single company, I was accused of committing a computer crimes offense and royal defamation, as usual,” he said.

Thanathorn blamed the prime minister for the vaccine rollout.

“Prayuth always uses the monarchy to cover his mistakes and his administrative inefficiency, merely citing his loyalty and vowing to protect the institution,” he said.

Thailand recorded its first confirmed coronavirus infection – a Chinese tourist from Wuhan – in January 2020. Since then, more than 12,000 cases have been recorded and the country is under threat of a second wave of infections largely among migrant workers.        

Millions of vaccine doses

Prayuth’s administration placed orders for almost 70 million doses of vaccine, which would be sufficient for half of the nation, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said Thursday.  

The government has chosen Siam Bioscience Co., Ltd., a Thai pharmaceutical firm, to collaborate with British-Swedish AstraZeneca to produce as many as 200 million vaccine doses a year, the spokesman said.

Thanathorn had said that about 26 million doses would be allocated for Thailand.

On Thursday, Thai drug regulators approved the AstraZenaca vaccine for emergency use in the country, reports said.

Founded in 2009, Siam Bioscience is owned by the Crown Property Bureau, according to local media reports. An employee at the company who asked to not be identified because she was not authorized to speak to reporters, told BenarNews that the firm had a policy to not release organizational information.

Since November, after Prayuth promised that all pertaining laws would be used against protesters taking part in massive youth-led anti-government demonstrations, at least 55 people have been charged with violating Lese-Majeste, which carries a maximum jail term of 15 years per count.

That same month Thanathorn and two others were charged with sedition over alleged comments in October 2020 against the royals.

Previously in September 2019, the military command that oversees the Thai Deep South lodged a sedition complaint with police in Pattani province against Thanathorn and other prominent opposition leaders, politicians and academics. The complaint alleged that they discussed potential solutions for ending a decades-old separatist conflict in the border region that may favor secessionism.

Record sentence

On Tuesday, a Bangkok court sentenced former Revenue Department official to a record 43½ years in prison under Lese-Majeste after she pleaded guilty to sharing audio clips on social media that were deemed as insulting the monarchy.

The defendant, Anchan Preelert, pleaded guilty to 29 counts of violating Lese-Majeste.

Meanwhile, political analysts questioned the government’s use of the law.

“The use of Lese-Majeste against Thanathorn and other dissidents reflects the use of the law to eradicate political opponents since the beginning of the Future Forward Party, but it won’t affect the resistance movement in the long run,” Titipol Phakdeewanich, the dean of the Faculty of Political Science of Ubon Ratchathani University, told BenarNews.

Another analyst said those efforts could have a negative effect.

“The use of Article 112 to suppress the dissidents definitely has effects on the government. The pressure on them is accumulated and could erupt one day,” Sawatree Suksri, assistant professor at the Faculty of Laws, Thammasat University told BenarNews. “Foreign media and international organizations will scrutinize the law.”

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