BANGKOK – 112 is a source of fear in Thailand. He refers to section 112 of the country’s Penal Code, which classifies insulting or defaming the king and his close relatives as a crime that can result in imprisonment for three to 15 years.
On Tuesday night, one of the leaders of a protest movement calling for a change in the Thai monarchy and political system was called upon to face several charges of lèse-majeste as the crime is known. It was the first time Section 112 had been used in protests that had brought thousands of people to the streets since July.
The leader of the protest, Parit Chiwarak, commonly referred to as Penguin, must report to police by December 1 to confront the allegations stemming from his speeches in September and this month. In these speeches, Parit and others called for the monarchy to be brought under the Thai constitution and for the public to be allowed to control its considerable wealth.
According to the International Federation for Human Rights, which works with human rights lawyers in Thailand, eleven other protest leaders have also been summoned for lèse-majesté charges. According to jurists, Article 112 has not been used to prosecute individuals in the last two years.
The resurrection of 112 took place a few hours before Wednesday’s protest in Bangkok, during which protesters asked King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun to return his property to the people. The tax revenue, they say, was used to fund his lavish lifestyle and replenish the coffers of one of the richest monarchies in the world.
The demonstration took place at the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank, in which the King is the largest shareholder. It was the first rally focused almost exclusively on transforming the power of the monarchy, as opposed to consolidating the issue and calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the 2014 coup.
“I’m not afraid,” Mr. Parit said Tuesday night after receiving his summons. “I am more concerned about the country if this 112 continues to be used in such a policy. This further deteriorates the monarchy. “
Mr. Parit appeared at Wednesday’s protests dressed in yellow ducks, recalling rubber ducks that had become a symbol of protest. At the meeting, others held signs crossed out with 112. The great portrait of the king remained untouched.
In a few months, Thailand was transformed from a country where criticism of the monarchy was only whispered, to a place where protesters spray-painted the “king of the dead” on the streets of Bangkok.
Vigorous criticism, especially from Thailand’s youth, shocked the royalists, leaving behind a retired general, Mr. Prayuth, who justified the 2014 coup to protect the monarchy and struggled with a rapidly changing landscape.
“Any defamation law depends on what society thinks is okay and not okay, but in Thailand this ocean change has happened and what was lèse-majesté and defamation yesterday is not certain today,” said David Streckfuss, an independent scientist. who has studied the application of section 112 over the years.
“When we look back at the decline of the monarchy 10 years from now, we can say that this moment, with the use of 112, was a big setback, a self-inflicted wound that often occurs with fading institutions,” he added.
Thailand abolished the absolute monarchy in 1932, but respect for the king was institutionalized for decades, especially under the father of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who ruled for 70 years and was seen by the United States as a bulwark against communist revolutions passing through the region.
Images of both rulers, imagined as semi-divine beings, can be found all over the country, from billboards near international airports to smaller portraits in shops. When politicians receive silence from the ruler, they typically bow down and slide sideways to show their respect.
The royal anthem is played at a number of public events, even in cinemas, and people are conditioned to respect themselves or face potential consequences. (This has changed in recent weeks, with far fewer going to the cinemas thanks to the king’s photo montage.)
Those who have faced charges of lèse-majesté over the years include Thai academics advocating reform of the monarchy, a foreigner who neglected the portrait of the former king, and relatives of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s third wife, who were cleaned up in 2014. For two years after the 2014 coup, prosecutions for Section 112 rose sharply.
Bhumibol – known as Rama IX, the ninth ruler of the Chakri dynasty – died in 2016. He spent much of his son’s reign in Europe, although he returned to Thailand last month with his fourth wife, son and noble companion, giving his lover an official title.
After inheriting the crown, King Maha Vajiralongkorn tightened his authority over influential military units. He also took direct control of the crown’s wealth.
Even before Article 112 was applied late on Tuesday, other laws were enforced against student-led protesters who launched a campaign against conservative school rules and later expanded their movement with calls to restructure Thailand’s leadership structure.
Mr. Parit and others have been charged with various crimes, such as atrocity involving imprisonment for up to seven years.
Last month, several protesters were charged with a crime on their faces that could be punishable by life imprisonment for committing an “act of violence against the Queen’s freedom” after defiantly raising their hands and shouting slogans at a passer-by limousine.
Dozens of people were injured on November 17 when police aimed water cannons and tear gas at protesters. Some people also suffered gunshots, although police said they did not use bullets.
A day later, protesters gathered at the Bangkok National Police Headquarters and painted the king’s sexual insults on the walls and sidewalk. Mr Prayuth soon warned that the authorities would “enforce all relevant laws against demonstrators who break the law.”
Benjamaporn Nivas, a 16-year-old student leader, said the ghost of lèse-majesté may make him more cautious in public criticism of the monarchy, but not because his feelings about the need for reform have shifted.
“I want to fight until the day no one can fight anymore, I will join the others in jail,” he said.
In June, Mr Prayuth noted that the lèse-majesté criminal proceedings had stalled at the end of 2017. “You know why?” he said. “Because the king kindly instructed you not to use it.”
Opposition politicians have called for the abolition of the lèse-majesté law. It is not clear why they are being used again now.
“There are a number of questions,” said Mr. Streckfuss, the scientist. “What authority does the king say that his majesty of lèse should not be used?” And now you tell the government to use it? In both cases, this treats issue 112 as an even stronger relief, a problematic law, and will not stop the protesters.
“If anything,” he added, “it will lay eggs on them.”