The head of the disbanded Future Forward Party criticized the government for contracting a royal-owned firm to supply COVID-19 vaccines.
The former Thai opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has been indicted for lese-majeste and computer crimes, his lawyer said yesterday, 15 months after the complaint was first brought against him. Thanathorn’s lawyer Krisadang Nutcharat confirmed the charge with reporters, the Thai Inquirer reported, and said that the public prosecutor had approved a bail of 90,000 baht ($2,674).
Thai authorities first lodged a lese-majeste complaint against Thanathorn, the 43-year-old leader of the disbanded Future Forward Party, in January 2021 shortly after a Facebook Live stream in which he criticized the government’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement program. In particular, he alleged that there had been favoritism in the awarding of a vaccine production contract to Siam Bioscience, a private company owned by Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn.
Thanathorn said that Siam Bioscience had no experience in vaccine production, and that details of the contract should be made public. The deal also involved Thailand’s SCG business conglomerate, of which the king is the main shareholder.
In addition to being charged under Section 112 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes any criticism of the king or the monarchy, Thanathorn has also been charged under the Computer Crime Act. The charges carry a combined sentence of up to 20 years imprisonment.
The plaintiff in the case against Thanathorn is Apiwat Khanthong, who works in the office of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and has been tasked with investigating the spread of “disinformation.”
Thanathorn, a billionaire auto parts heir, was the co-founder and leader of Future Forward, a political party that made a strong showing in national elections in March 2019, just a year after it was formed. Future Forward advanced a liberal platform focused heavily on reducing the political power of the military, which seized power in a coup in 2014 under Prayut. In February 2020, the party was disbanded on a technicality, and Thanathorn was banned from politics for 10 years.
The banning of the party was one of the catalysts for the wave of youth-led protests that took place throughout 2020, airing calls for Prayut’s resignation, a new and genuinely democratic constitution, and – most explosively – limits to be placed on the power of the Thai monarchy.
As Prayut’s administration has moved to quash the protests, a key weapon has been the lese-majeste law, which carries prison terms of up to 15 years. While they initially showed some restraint in the use of the law, since November 2020, the authorities have charged at least 173 people – many of them protest leaders and political activists – under the controversial law, according to the legal aid group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. This has proceeded in parallel with a range of other measures designed to limit political freedoms.
The most recent conviction was handed down last month, when a court in Bangkok sentenced a political activist to two years in prison for placing a sticker on a portrait of the king. The previous case involved a former civil servant who was sentenced to a record 43 years and six months in prison after posting audio clips to Facebook and YouTube with comments deemed critical of the monarchy.
The charge against Thanathorn, who has been relatively cautious in the past about criticizing the monarchy, shows that Thailand’s ruling establishment is meeting calls for reform with increasingly draconian crackdowns. Even if the use of the lese majeste law may succeed through sheer brute force in quashing calls for political reform, the politicization of the law will only succeed in making the monarchy a subject of political contestation.
“What I did was intended for public benefit and to protect the royal institution,” Thanathorn told reporters yesterday, Reuters reported. “I want to stress that the usage of this law is not a good thing, and certainly not good for the monarchy.”