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Thai pair jailed for more than two years for royal slur in play

BANGKOK: Two young Thais accused of defaming the monarchy in a university play were jailed for two and a half years on Monday, as the ruling junta intensifies a crackdown under a controversial lese majeste law.

Student Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and activist Porntip Mankong, 26, had pleaded guilty to defamation following their arrests last August, nearly a year after “The Wolf Bride” — a satire set in a fictional kingdom — was performed.

The pair were originally handed five-year jail terms but the sentence was halved due to their confessions, said a judge at Ratchada Criminal Court in Bangkok.

“The court considers their role in the play caused serious damage to the monarchy and sees no reason to suspend their sentences,” he told a packed courtroom including the accused, their relatives and representatives from the UN human rights office and European Union.

Rights groups say lese majeste prosecutions have surged since the army seized power from an elected government last May. The military seeks legitimacy from its self-designated role as protector of the monarchy.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, is revered by many in the country as a demi-god and anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in jail on each count.

The pair had each been charged with one count of lese majeste linked to the performance at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, to mark the 40th anniversary of a pro-democracy student protest on the campus that was brutally crushed by the military regime in October 1973.

After they were taken out of court in handcuffs their lawyer Pawinee Chumsri said her clients would not appeal.

Police are still hunting for at least six others involved in the play for allegedly violating “112” — the feared section of the Thai criminal code that is one of the world’s most draconian royal defamation laws.

Of those on the wanted list, at least two have fled Thailand, joining dozens of academics, activists and political opponents of the military regime in self-exile since the coup.

The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights said at least 40 people have been arrested since the takeover — with nine of them sentenced to between two and 15 years in prison.

– Suppressing dissent? –

Critics say the lese majeste law has been used as a tool to suppress political dissent, noting that many of those charged have been linked to the opposition Red Shirt movement.

Rights activists as well as local and international media are forced to censor discussion of cases since even repeating details of charges risks breaking the law.

Under junta rule Thailand has seen a rapid deterioration in civil rights with the military crushing any criticism of the coup — from banning protests and censoring the media to arresting and detaining opponents.

“The Wolf Bride” was performed in October 2013, several months before the coup, but the case is just one of many driven through by the junta.

“The junta is using the law to bolster its legitimacy with the Thai people,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.

Previous administrations including that of ousted premier Yingluck Shinawatra have also used the legislation in this way, but the junta has been “even stronger” in asserting its “obedience to the monarchy” through the crackdown, he added.

Andrea Giorgetta from the International Federation of Human Rights also said the junta was drawing legitimacy through the monarchy and that the surge in lese majeste cases looked set to continue.

“We’re expecting a lot more people to go to jail in the next month. Almost all cases have been backdated (for alleged offences) before the coup,” he told AFP. “It’s a very grim situation for rights in Thailand.”

Analysts say the most recent chapter of Thailand’s long-drawn political turmoil is fuelled by anxieties over who will run the country when the more than six-decade reign of the world’s longest-serving monarch eventually ends. -AFP

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