Asking for referendum over monarchy judged as sedition

On 4 October, Lampang Provincial Court found Tiwagorn Withiton guilty of sedition for inviting netizens to cast votes in a campaign asking whether the Thai people wanted to have a referendum about having a monarch as head of the state.

Tiwagorn Withiton, with the "I have lost faith in the monarchy" T-shirt.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), Lampang Court found Tiwagorn guilty under Section 116 of the Criminal Code, known as the sedition law, for his campaign message on 28 June 2021 on Change.org, a website known as an online space for starting social advocacy campaigns.

He was sentenced to 3 years in jail, but was later put on parole. Tiwagorn told TLHR, that he wanted to appeal as he finds that the ruling contradicts the Constitutional right to freedom of expression when it comes to monarchy issues. He believes that the ruling will be harmful to a democratic regime.

The campaign, aiming to ask people if they agreed to a referendum on whether Thailand should have a monarch as head of state, contained the sentence “We dream of a republican/federal state system that needs no monarch.” This led to a criminal complaint by Thawi Intha from the Network to Guard, Defend and Protect the Monarchy in Lampang.

He filed the case against Tiwagorn with Lampang police, accusing him of sedition and violating the Computer Crime Act. Tiwagorn, who lives in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen, had to travel to Lampang for the trial. 

During the trial, Tiwagorn admitted that he posted the campaign message, but only asked if people wanted to have a referendum regarding that issue. Prosecution witnesses testified that the post amounts to an invitation to rally people to change the regime.

Kittipong Kamolthamwong, a prosecution witness, said Tiwagorn’s message implies a federal regime, which would cause conflict within the populace and affect the feelings of those who love the monarchy.

Pol Lt Col Wichian Chaisanklang, Investigative Officer at Muang Lampang Police Station, also viewed Tiwagorn’s action as one intended to change the form of government into one without a monarch. Despite no violence being involved, it amounted to incitement to make people violate the law.

On the defence side, Kitpatchara Somanawat, a law lecturer from Chiang Mai University, testified that a referendum itself is not something outside the concept of democracy and is allowed.

 Section 258 of the 2017 Constitution also gives a mandate to the promotion of the people’s good understanding of the democratic regime with the monarch as the head of state, a regime like the United Kingdom, Japan, and Norway, which have held referendums on whether their people wanted to have a monarch or not.”

Kitpatchara also said the initiative on Change.org is only an expression of opinion on a public issue. No matter how many people agreed, it would not result in any practical change in the structure of the state or the law.

Chaiyapong Samniang, a history lecturer from Naresuan University, said as a defence witness that there have been conversations during the course of Thai political history over the country’s form of government after the change of regime in 1932. The question of whether the monarchy should “remain or be abolished” did not amount to an act of overthrowing the monarchy as such a change would require armed force.

Chaiyapong also said that questioning the form of government is a regular activity and that bringing this issue to the Court can be deemed as manoeuvring the monarchy down into a political debate. He also referred to a Facebook post of royalist MC Chulcherm Yugala which asked whether Thailand should be a “democracy” or “monarchy”. He saw this question as more radical than Tiwagorn’s. 

The Court declared that Sections 1, 2, and 3 of the 2017 Constitution state that Thailand is a unified and inseparable Kingdom, governed under a democratic regime with the King as head of state. Despite freedom of expression being a constitutional right and freedom, it would have to be limited for the sake of the security of the state and the form of government.

Besides security restrictions, the Court mentioned that rights and freedoms can also be limited in order to protect the freedoms and rights of others and public morality. Moreover, it is a constitutional duty for Thais to protect the nation, religions, and monarchy.

Thus, Tiwagorn’s action went against the will of the Constitution and he was found guilty, but as multiple charges were filed over one offence, the Court found him guilty only of the charge with the heaviest punishment, and sentenced him to 3 years’ imprisonment for sedition.

Tiwagorn’s lawyer said after the ruling that the Court did not take the defence argument into consideration before making its judgement. The Court also only partially used Kittipong’s statement about Tiwagorn’s post being an unlawful exercise of rights but excluded the part where he said that Tiwagorn’s action did not amount to sedition and that violating the Constitution would only entail criminal punishment when there is a specific provision in law.

Tiwagorn is not new to being charged for speaking out about the monarchy. He has just been found innocent by Khon Kaen Provincial Court on 29 September of a royal defamation charge over him wearing a T-shirt reading “I have lost faith in the monarchy”. 

The local news agency the Isaander reported that in the ruling given on 29 September, the Court found that the evidence did not prove that the defendant intended to defame or express hostility to the monarch.

He has been under close surveillance from Khon Kaen’s security forces after he posted on Facebook a picture of himself wearing the shirt, attracting online discussion. 

On 19 June 2020, officers from the Internal Security Operations Command, the arm of the military dealing with civilian affairs, went to his house to convince him to stop wearing the shirt. He was later charged under Sections 112 and 116 of the Criminal Code for royal defamation and sedition, and also for a violation of the Computer Crime Act.

On 9 July 2020, he was forcibly taken from his house to Khon Kaen Rajanagarindra Psychiatric Hospital. He was given an injection in both arms as he was being taken to hospital. Tiwagorn’s mother said that after he was taken away in an ambulance, police officers searched the house and seized his computer, smartphone and the T-shirt. They also made his mother sign a document, the content of which is unknown.

He was discharged from hospital on 22 July 2020 after a public campaign calling for his release.

Source: 
prachatai.com/journal/2022/10/100813?ref=internal_update_title

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