Monday review: sedition, prosecution and … a headlock

Over the past week, a teenage singer was slammed by nationalists after complaining about her country on Twitter. A lecturer put a student in a headlock for protesting a university ceremony. And various prosecution cases moved forward against human rights advocates and politicians.
 
Late last week, Thai social media heated up over tweets from a pop singer called ‘Image’ who had expressed her discontent at living in Thailand. But public attention quickly shifted to violence by a Chulalongkorn University lecturer against a student activist. 

“He had good intentions”: CU defends lecturer’s assault on student

 
On 3 August 2017, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a progressive student activist, posted on his Facebook page a picture of his friend Supalak Damrongjit held in a headlock by a university lecturer. The picture was taken during an annual university ceremony where new students prostrate themselves before the monuments of King Rama V and Rama VI, the co-founders of the university. 
 
According to Netiwit, the lecturer charged at Supalak while he was walking out of the ceremony in protest. As President of the Student Council, Netiwit had proposed to the university that this year’s ceremony have a space for students who want to pay respect by bowing rather than prostrating themselves. He argued that his request follows the wishes of King Rama V who abolished prostration.
 
Netiwit claimed that the university initially agreed to amend the ceremony, but on the day only prostration was allowed. Subsequently he and his friends decided to walk out towards the end of the ceremony. It was then that CU lecturer Ruengwit Bunjongrat, a ceremony organiser, approached and assaulted Supalak.
 
The university later published a statement to clarify the situation. Though the Vice President of Student Affairs Bancha Chalaphirom apologised to Supalak on behalf of Ruengwit, CU ultimately argued that the incident was a set-up by Netiwit who had ‘negative intentions’. The statement did not mention that Ruengwit facing any punishment. 
 
“The university believes there are different groups with negative intentions, one led by the president of the student council, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, who made this incident appear well out of proportion,” read the English version of the statement.
 
But the university later removed this statement, blaming an incorrect translation.
 
Buncha later told the media that Ruengwit was hospitalised after the incident due to enormous stress. He added that Ruengwit attacked the student with good intentions, as he wanted to protect the protesting students from other students who may have wanted to harm them. 
 
 
Ruengwit escorts Supalak out off the ceremony (Photo from Netiwit’s Facebook)

Five prosecutions

 
With social media overwhelmed by debates over Image and Netiwit, the ongoing prosecution of human rights defenders seemed to be overlooked. 
 
The first case was the imprisonment of Suphap Khamlae, 63, a land rights activist from Chaiyaphum Province. On 27 July, the Supreme Court ruled her guilty of forest encroachment and handed a sentence of six months in prison with no suspended term. 
 
Suphap was a land rights activist who was fighting for the legal title to the land on which her community resides in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary. She had succeeded her husband, Den Khamlae, as the community leader after he disappeared on 16 April 2017. 
 
The second case involved a letter summoning Sirikan Charoensiri, a lawyer from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), to Chanasongkram Police Station. She currently stands accused of violating Articles 172 and 174 of the Criminal Code for making false accusations against investigating officers. She is also accused under Article 368 for disobeying the orders of an official.
 
The accusations relate to Sirikan’s refusal on 27 June 2015 to allow a police officer without a warrant to search her car for the mobile phones of pro-democracy activists she was representing. Sirikan later filed a complaint against the police for malfeasance in office under Article 157 of the Criminal Code. 
 
The third case targeted an embattled politician Watana Muangsook. On 1 August, he reported to the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) to hear the accusations against him. He now stands accused of violating the sedition law, Article 116 of the Criminal Code, and the Computer Crimes Act for condemning on Facebook the trial of former PM Yingluck Shinawatra.
 
He was summoned on the last day of Yingluck’s trial. According to the authorities, Watana’s Facebook posts, which called on people to gather at the court to support the former PM, incited conflict and chaos. Watana was released after a brief interrogation without having to submit a bail request. 
 
This is the second sedition charge Watana has faced under the junta.
 
In the fourth case, also involving alleged sedition, Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior reporter from Khaosod English, reported on his Facebook account that the TCSD had accused him of sedition. The TCSD informed him that five of his Facebook posts have breached the law. The actual messages leading to the charge remain unconfirmed. 
 
His charge came only 2 weeks after he received a Press Freedom Award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. 
 
Last but not least, the first hearing in the trial of Jatuphat ‘Pai’ Boonpattaraksa was held in secret. Before the hearing began, the court posted a notice in front of the courtroom informing those who came to show support for Jatuphat that the trial would be held in camera.
 
The first witness called to testify at the court was Lt Col Pitakpol Chusri, the military officer who filed the lèse majesté complaint against Jatuphat.
 
Jatuphat is accused of violating Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the lèse majesté law, for sharing on his Facebook account a controversial biography of King Vajiralongkorn published by BBC Thai. He was the first person to be arrested for lèse majesté under the reign of the new King.
 
Shortly after he was arrested for lèse majesté on 3 December 2016, the court released him on bail. However, his bail was revoked on 22 December after he posted a satirical message mocking the authorities on his Facebook account. The message read, “Economy is poor but they (authorities) took my money for bail.”
 
Despite the fact that more than 2,000 people shared the same article on Facebook and millions read it, he was the only one arrested for lèse majesté.
 
In a separate case, Jatuphat is also facing trial in a military court for violating the junta’s ban on political gatherings of five or more persons. The accusation came after he and other activists gathered at the Democracy Monument replica in Khon Kaen Province to commemorate the first anniversary of the coup d’état on 22 May 2015.