At the height of pro-democracy protests in Thailand, young activists staged a fake campy People’s Catwalk fashion show on a street in Silom, a Bangkok neighborhood known for its gay nightlife.
One of the models who walked the red carpet on October 29, 2020 was Sainam, a 16-year-old who wore a black crop top, a sportswear that King Maha Vajiralongkorn photographed doing during his stays in Germany and Switzerland.
The people’s parade was meant to be a satirical jab at the king’s daughter, Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, a fashion designer who was holding a parade the same night in another part of Bangkok.
It was one of many protests staged in the second half of 2020, when young Thai protesters made history demanding limits on the power of the king, whose role at the top of the constitutional order is rarely challenged. publicly. Activists were testing the limits of the kingdom’s repressive apparatus lese majesty law, which makes it a crime punishable by 15 years in prison for “defaming, insulting or threatening” members of the royal family.
Just over a year later, Sainam – his lawyers are withholding his surname due to his age – is one of many people charged with lese majesty for the fashion show and a separate incident in which he was accused of spraying paint on the King’s portrait.
Jatuphon Saeung, 22, a fashion show attendee, was charged under lese majesty after posing in a pink suit and clutch that resembled outfits worn by Queen Suthida, the king’s consort.
The indictments are part of a crackdown on political dissent and free speech in Thailand on a scale not seen in years, and which has intensified in recent months, according to human rights groups. Since November, Thailand’s Constitutional Court has effectively banned debate on the reform of the monarchy, and the country’s broadcasting authority has warned the media not to report on the subject.
Authorities denied bail to some activists and revoked the passports of others. According to Amnesty International, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military-backed royalist government has approved a bill on non-governmental organizations that may hinder or prevent civil society groups from working in Thailand.
“The level of oppression has reached a new high,” said Sunai Phasuk, researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s not just about targeting activists, NGOs, human rights groups or the media; it is about completely closing civic space.
A government spokesman said the NGO bill should be constitutional, adding that while they understood the concerns of civic groups, there was a need for “accountability and transparency” in the process. sector. The spokesperson did not respond to questions about lese majesty lawsuits or media warnings.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which represents some of those accused of lese majestywhich includes children, said it handled 164 cases involving 168 people in the past year, the highest number ever.
“Before, we had high-profile cases, but not that many,” said Sirikan Charoensiri, a Thai lawyer with the group. “And the people who are accused are young.”
According to human rights groups and activists, protests in which activists wore crop-tops appeared to have struck a chord. Seven people, including protest leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and two 17-year-olds were also charged with lese majesty after wearing crop tops in another December 2020 protest at a Bangkok mall.
“It is very difficult to say why this form of dress can be an insult or a defamation of the king,” said Yingcheep Atchanont, director of iLaw, a Thai NGO.
In the early years of the reign of Vajiralongkorn, who succeeded his father Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016, no lese majesty charges were laid.
But that changed in 2020 after young activists shocked traditionalist Thais by demanding Prayuth’s resignation as well as the imposition of limits on the monarchy’s power and taxpayer funds supporting it.
In October of the same year, demonstrators marched on the German embassy in Bangkok to demand that Berlin open an investigation into whether the king ruled Thailand from German soil.
Along with their political demands, protest leaders have also impersonated or mocked the royal family at some protests. The penguin donned clothes appearing to mock both Queen Suthida and Sirikit, the Queen Mother, while protesters wearing cropped tops regularly showed up at rallies.
The Thai king appears in public in his home country in uniform or costume. But photographers captured the monarch, an avid cyclist, wearing the bare-bellied top in Europe. Thais shared the photos widely online, although some pro-monarchist users claimed the images were faked.
While Thai prosecutors cracking down on royal defamation allegations have not claimed wearing a crop top was a crime, their indictments accused protesters of mocking or insulting the king or other members of the royal family. Participants in the mall protest scrawled anti-monarchist slogans on their stomachs and backs.
In November, authorities deported Yan Marchal, a longtime French resident in Thailand, describing him as a public danger. A Thai speaker, Marchal posted satirical videos in which he mocked Prayuth and other Thai figures, including one in which he frolicked in a crop top and referenced the king’s extended stays in Germany.
“We’ve been documenting free speech issues for over 10 years,” said iLaw’s Yingcheep. “We can say that the past year has been the toughest year we have ever had.”