Thai woman who fled royal insult law decries targeting of activists

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A Thai activist who fled the country to avoid a royal insult case over sharing a BBC article on Facebook Monday attacked the junta for using the legislation to target pro-democracy advocates. Chanoknan Ruamsap, 24, said on Monday in an interview from an unnamed Asian country that she is seeking refugee status there. She left Thailand two weeks ago shortly after receiving a summons from the police. The case stems from her sharing a profile on Facebook in December 2016 of King Maha Vajiralongkorn written by the BBC’s Thai-language service in London.

But Chanoknan said her work as a pro-democracy activist was the real reason she was targeted. She is now the second young activist to face prosecution for sharing this article. “Those who aren’t activists will have no problems. Only the anti-junta activists or human rights defenders have been the targets,” she said. The BBC profile swiftly went viral both because it was in Thai and since it offered an unvarnished portrait of the new monarch in a country where information about the royal family is ruthlessly censored.

Lese majeste cases have shot up under the ultra-royalist junta that cracked down on dissent after seizing power in 2014, with conviction rates for those accused at more than 90 percent. The charge, referred to informally as 112, carries up to 15 years in jail, prodding many to admit guilt in the hope of receiving leniency or to leave the country to avoid likely prison time.

Prominent student leader Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpatararaksa had shared the same article and was jailed in August for two-and-a-half years after changing his plea to guilty for a lower sentence. “The reason Pai and I have been prosecuted is not a coincidence,” Chanoknan said. More than 2,000 people shared the profile of Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne after the October 2016 death of his father Bhumibol Adulyadej following a seven-decade reign.

Viboon Thinwattanakul, a police official at the Bangkok station that issued the summons, confirmed the case was tied to the BBC Thai article, adding they had received news that Chanoknan had fled the country. Chanoknan also bemoaned the shrinking space for free expression in Thailand, saying before the 2014 coup she had been able to talk more openly about the royal insult law.

“When we people talk about it [now], they are being sued, prosecuted and going into exile like myself,” she said, adding that she would continue to campaign against the law. Earlier this month, an 85-year-old Thai historian accused of lese majeste for questioning a royal elephant duel said after the charges were dropped against him that use of 112 had gone “too far.”

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