Sirawith talking to his mom through the jail bars at the Crime Suppression Division in May 2016 (File Photo)

Replying to a chat with ‘yes’ costs a mother 4 years in lèse majesté court

On 22 December, the Criminal Court found Patnaree Chankij, the mother of pro-democracy activist Sirawith Seritiwat, not guilty of charges under the lèse majesté law and the Computer Crime Act after she responded in a chat with her son’s friend with ‘cha’ (yes).

Patnaree Chankij (File Photo)

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), the court found that the word ‘cha’ used in reply to a statement by Burin Intin, her son’s friend who was charged and found guilty of the same charges, was an attempt to end the conversation.

Patnaree’s case was brought in May 2016 by the legal team of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta that overthrew the elected government in 2014. It came after Burin was arrested and secretly interrogated in a military camp, a method commonly used after the coup to quell criticism and opposition. Later, the military somehow gained access to Burin’s chats including one where Patnaree is involved.

After the chat was exposed, she was accused under Section 112 for replying to a Facebook message from Burin that was deemed to be lèse majesté by texting ‘cha’. Human Rights Watch translated this word as a non-committal, colloquial ‘yes’. The authorities alleged that it shows that she accepted or agreed with the message and failed to report Burin to the authorities.

The police at first refused to prosecute under Section 112. The Military Courts, which at that time had jurisdiction in national security-related cases including lèse majesté cases, indicted her anyway. After she was detained for two days, she was released on 8 May 2016 on 500,000 baht bail on condition that she did not go abroad or participate in any political activity.

The arrest of Patnaree triggered outrage from many anti-junta activists and international human rights advocates, who promptly condemned the Thai authorities and accused them of having a political motivation in relation to her son's series of anti-junta rallies.

Patnaree’s trial took place in a closed hearing, allowing only Patnaree and her defence lawyer to be in the courtroom without any observers, on the pretext that the case involved the lèse majesté law. She denied the allegations against her and vowed to fight the case.

According to TLHR, trials in Military Courts proceed slowly. It took more than 3 years to hear the testimony of 6 out of 17 witnesses, when the case was transferred to a civilian court which she finally saw the end of her case. However, the long trial and stigma cost her a lot.

“Every time I hear the news that someone is charged under [Section] 112, it is not only a legal prosecution. I feel that we will be defendants against society. We will be bad people on the other side of a society that does not understand. Or the ones that love the institution [monarchy], they sure do not listen that I texted only one word ‘cha’. There have been insults, threats of hate and threats of assault. It’s like besides having to be stressed over the case, I have to be stressed over society. Will there be people coming to hurt me? Will mad people come and knock me about?”

“Since I was prosecuted under 112, jobs that used to hire me for cleaning, jobs that used to make appointments for fortune telling, or jobs where I used to be able to sell stuff, those people are the groups that broke off relations with me. 50% of my work has disappeared ,” said Patnaree.

Section 112 of the Criminal Code prohibits people from defaming or expressing hostility to the king, queen, heir-apparent and regent. Those who are found guilty face 3-15 years in jail. The law and the way it has been used have attracted scrutiny because of problems with the wide range of interpretation and the proportionality of the punishment.

In the rise of the pro-democracy movement since July 2020, calling for the government’s resignation, constitutional amendments and monarchy reform, criticism of the monarchy has become a topic of public discussion as never before. Section 112 has recently again been widely used against protesters with a wide range of interpretation after an informal moratorium that began in 2018.

At least 35 protesters have been charged as of 22 December over speeches, social media posts and cosplay.

Patnaree's son, Sirawith, faced several charges over his activities. He was also brutally assaulted in daylight on a main road, an attack which left one of his eyes heavily damaged and he has still not fully recovered. Because of the treatment to his injury, a scholarship to India that he had been granted was cancelled. The culprits were never found and brought to justice.

Burin Intin was not allowed bail. He was put on trial while he was in temporary detention in the remand prison. He later confessed, and his 22 years and 8 months sentence was reduced by half. He remains in Bangkok Remand Prison as of 22 December 2020.

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