Ex-novice monk indicted on royal defamation charge

Former novice monk Saharat Sukkhamla, 21, has been indicted on a royal defamation charge resulting from a speech he gave during a protest organized by the students’ rights group Bad Student on 21 November 2020.

Saharat Sukkhamla while a novice monk joining a protest in October 2020

The complaint against Saharat was filed by Ratthanaphak Suwannarat, who claimed that he saw a video recording of Saharat’s speech and noted that it contained insults against the King. Saharat reported to Pathumwan Police Station in July 2021 to hear the charges, more than 5 months before the public prosecutor decided to indict him.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) reported today (19 January 2022) that the public prosecutor has decided to indict Saharat on the grounds that parts of his speech insults the King. The indictment gave examples of the offending parts, such as when Saharat ask why we can only discuss the King’s good deeds but cannot discuss his bad side, and when he said that Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha’s statement that the authorities will use every law against the protesters, even the royal defamation charge, will make the King break his promise, since the King said that the royal defamation law will not be used against citizens.

The public prosecutor said that Saharat’s speech could cause misunderstanding concerning the King, such as making him seem like someone who could harm the country or someone who is dishonest and does not keep his promise or that he will intervene in law enforcement. The public prosecutor also claimed that Saharat intended to harm the monarchy and cause a loss of respect for the monarchy.

Saharat is a student at Mahidol University’s College of Religious Studies and a member of the New Restoration Order. Known among young people as the “Carrot Gang” due to the orange robes worn by Thai Buddhist monks, the group calls for reform of the Thai Buddhist clergy and for it to be removed from the secular government’s authority in a move towards a secular state.

As a novice monk, Saharat often participated in pro-democracy protests and is the first Buddhist monk to be charged for joining the protests. In addition to the royal defamation charge, he is also facing charges for joining protests on 25 November 2020 at the Siam Commercial bank headquarters building and 20 February 2021 in front of parliament.

In relation to the 25 November 2020 protest, Saharat was charged with organizing a public gathering without notifying the authorities, violation of the Emergency Decree, using a sound amplifier without permission, and obstructing traffic.

For the 20 February 2021 protest, he was charged with violation of the Emergency Decree, joining an assembly of more than 10 people and causing a breach of public peace, and using a sound amplifier without permission.

In February 2021, it was reported that special branch police tried to disrobe Saharat, claiming a consensus of the Sangha Supreme Council of Thailand, the main governing body of the Buddhist order in Thailand, and an announcement from the National Office of Buddhism. 

The Sangha Supreme Council of Thailand reportedly reached a consensus in February 2021 to press charges against Saharat, claiming that he insulted the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, who is the head of the order of Buddhist monks, and that he caused conflict within the order.

Saharat left monkhood in November 2021, saying that he faced pressure from both the Buddhist order and state authorities.

Saharat getting dressed in lay clothing after the ceremony where he declares the end of his monkhood

The South Bangkok Criminal Court granted Saharat bail on a 200,000-baht security and set the conditions that he may not join a gathering which may cause public disorder, participate in activities which can harm the monarchy, or leave the country without permission.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), at least 167 people have been charged with royal defamation for political expression since November 2020.  Following a protest in front of the Royal Thai Police HQ on 18 November 2020, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha announced that the government would use every law it had to stop pro-democracy protesters.

Several protest leaders are facing multiple counts of the charge, including Parit Chiwarak, who is facing 23 counts; Anon Nampa, 14 counts; Panupong Jadnok, 9 counts; Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, 9 counts; and Benja Apan, 6 counts.

Four people are currently detained pending trial on royal defamation charges: Parit Chiwarak, Jatupat Boonpattaraksa, Anon Nampa, and Panupong Jadnok.

According to TLHR’s December 2021 situation report, public prosecutors have decided to indict at least at least 75 of existing royal defamation cases have been indicted. The report also stated, so far, there has yet to be a case that was not indicted.

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