The latest charges against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a key political activist and opponent of the government, have been anticipated for some time ever since the Prime Minister’s Office made known its particular displeasure with his media broadside in January 2021 with a police complaint filed in Bangkok. This came as the government struggled to launch its vaccination campaign last year. There are also fears that these charges may raise political tensions.

Former Future Forward Party leader, billionaire and acknowledged leader of the Progressive Movement in Thailand campaigning for political reform, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was brought before the Criminal Court in Bangkok on Monday on charges of Lèse-majesté and violating the Computer Crime Act 2007 relating to a controversial Facebook broadcast in January 2021 in which he lambasted the government’s nascent vaccine policy and its strategic contract with a local Thai firm to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine as the key component of its plan. A defiant Mr Thanatorn left the court after being allowed bail in the amount of ฿90,000. He promised to fight the case against him and prove his innocence of the charges. If convicted, he could face a hefty prison term.

Former Future Forward leader and key opposition leader of the Progressive Movement, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was granted bail on Monday at the Criminal Court in Bangkok charged with Lèse-majesté and an offence under the Computer Crime Act 2007 after an investigation by police at Nan Loeng Police Station in Bangkok into comments made by the 43-year-old on Monday 18th January 2021 in which he severely criticised the government’s vaccine strategy and reliance, at that time, on the Siam Bioscience firm which entered into a local partnership with Swedish UK firm AstraZeneca to produce its Oxford University developed vaccine in Thailand. The investigation followed a complaint lodged at the police station by senior government officials at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office.

On Monday, after being granted bail in Bangkok by the Criminal Court following charges brought against him for Lèse-majesté under Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code as well as a charge under the kingdom’s Computer Crime Act relating to a Facebook live broadcast in January 2021 in which he criticised the government’s vaccine policy, key opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit insisted that he was innocent of wrongdoing and would fight the charges to the end.

The case brought against him could see the 43-year-old political activist and billionaire facing a potential jail sentence of up to fifteen years based on the Lèse-majesté charge and five years on the charge linked with the Computer Crime Act 2007 as amended which came into force in July 2007 primarily designed to target cyber criminality.

Charged under legal provisions that outlaw the publication of false information or comments which could be interpreted as injurious to the monarchy

The sweeping and draconian 2007 law makes it a criminal offence to publish anything online that could be construed as false or a deliberate lie.

Concerns have long been expressed about the 2007 provision by academics and activists who see it as a threat to freedom of expression in the kingdom.

The basis for the specific charge filed against the banned political leader early last year was that his comments on social media suggested impropriety in the government’s signature contract with Siam Bioscience in Pathum Thani which has been a major and successful supplier to the country’s vaccine programme through a partnership agreement with UK Swedish firm AstraZeneca.

Siam Bioscience is owned by the Crown Property Bureau in Thailand, a property holding company related to the kingdom’s revered monarchy.

Court heard Thanathorn’s January 2020 comments cast the King in a suspicious light contrary to the law

When filing a statement of complaint with Nang Loeng Police Station in central Bangkok last year, in proceedings orchestrated by Mr Tossapol Pengsom of the Prime Minister’s Office, deputy minister at the Digital Economy and Society Ministry, Newin Chorchaithip, clarified the basis for the legal action: ‘We gave police evidence that what Thanathorn said is inaccurate regarding the vaccine quality as well as his false claim that the institution is involved with the vaccine which made people wonder.’  

The indictment read out in court on Monday was quite similar and said that Mr Thanathorn’s public remarks cast His Majesty the King in a suspicious light and were illegal.

Thanathorn: broadcast made with good intentions

On Monday, in his defence, Mr Thanathorn said his broadcast in January 2021 was made with the best of intentions.

‘What I did was intended for public benefit and to protect the royal institution,’ Thanathorn told reporters including news agency Reuters. ‘I want to stress that the usage of this law is not a good thing, and certainly not good for the monarchy.’

The 43-year-old businessman turned political activist had raised questions about the desirability of using just one leading vaccine source as well as the government’s thinking behind the deal with Siam Bioscience.

This is not the first brush Mr Thanathorn has had with the law.

In the runup to the last election, the leader was called in for questioning by police over another Facebook broadcast which, it was claimed, breached junta era restrictions.

That case was later not pursued in a decision that came over 6 months after the national poll.

Leader of a political party that came from nowhere to secure 81 seats in the last General Election, since then he has been beset with legal difficulties

Mr Thanathorn’s family have also been beset by legal problems since he entered into politics with a probe into the family’s landholdings and parliamentary enquiries into his brother’s business dealings linked to bribery allegations which saw two officials of the Crown Property Bureau jailed in November 2019.

CSD police investigating a ฿20 million bribery claim which a court linked with Thanathorn’s younger brother

Thanathorn was the leader of the Future Forward Party which came from nowhere in 2019 to secure 17.34% of the national vote in Thailand’s last General Election to elect MPs to the 25th House of Representatives.

The party achieved 81 seats when the figures were finally tallied.

However, within weeks of the result, Mr Thanathorn was charged with sedition for assisting protesters in 2015 protesting against the military junta government of General Prayut Chan ocha.

That charge is still pending and carries a jail term of up to seven years.

Initially ordered to delete his Facebook content on the grounds of national security but that court order was rescinded on the basis of free speech

After Mr Thanathorn’s Facebook broadcast in January 2021, the criminal court ordered him initially to remove the content saying it constituted a breach of national security.

This order was subsequently reversed on appeal based on free speech rights under the constitution.

Thanathorn’s political party, Future Forward, had been dissolved by the Constitutional Court in February 2020 when the court upheld a complaint referred to it by the country’s powerful Election Commission relating to a late-stage loan to cover election expenses provided by the party leader to the party which it held to have contravened the law.

He was also banned from politics for 10 years.

Future Forward Party dissolved – leadership banned from politics by Constitutional Court order
Constitutional court sets the real D-Day for the Future Forward Party as Friday, February 21st on loans case

The ฿191 million in loans made by Mr Thanathorn was found to be a severe violation under Section 72 of the 2017 organic law on political parties as an illicit source of financing as it had violated Section 66 and 67 of the act on the applicable scope of individual donations.

The party was then dissolved under Section 94 of the highly restrictive law designed to counter the influence of wealthy individuals in politics and within political parties.

Upsurge in street protests from July 2020 has been linked to the dissolution of Future Forward by pundits

Many political analysts have linked the upsurge in street protest activity which broke out suddenly in July 2020 with the disbandment of the radical party established by Mr Thanathorn which strongly and somewhat uncompromisingly questioned the role of the military in Thai politics.

This eruption of violent street protests reached a climactic point in November 2020 in Bangkok after the Royal Thai Police Headquarters and the kingdom’s parliament were targeted by organised and violent disturbances which saw the prime minister move to reintroduce the enforcement of the draconian Article 112 criminal code provision which had been suspended for some time.

Band singer arrested on arson, lèse-majesté charges after burning the Thai King’s portrait outside prison
Thanathorn facing serious Lèse-majesté charges after Facebook broadcast on vaccination strategy

The violent nature of these protests was also exacerbated by calls by students at a campus of Thammasat University, on August 10th 2020, for limited reform of the Thai monarchy.

Prime Minister Prayut warned in 2020 that student-led protest activity was taking a dangerous direction

This led to a warning by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha of the country being ‘engulfed in flames’ if such a course was pursued and there followed later in the year a get-tough policy by law enforcement officials in respect of the use of organised violence by protesters.

The fear for officials is the danger of conflict between conservative forces in Thailand who are extremely protective of traditional values which are linked with the Thai monarchy and younger, student-led activists seeking a more democratic political system and more radical efforts to address inequality as well as the promotion of more progressive values in society.

Stronger law enforcement has seen no less than 173 people charged with Lèse-majesté by authorities including 13 teenage offenders according to the legal activist group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Top Court ruling limited the spectrum of acceptable political and democratic activity when it ruled that protesters sought to overthrow the government

The Constitutional Court of Thailand, in November 2021, ruled that the ongoing street protests since July 2020 were an activity that was aimed at the overthrow of the government under Section 49 of the constitution and could legally be halted through a petition to the Attorney General’s Office by any concerned party or to the court itself if action was not taken within 15 days.

Protest activity has been more subdued since the judgement although political divisions are still very real in the kingdom and always likely to erupt.

The violent agitation seen in Bangkok in 2020 led to US senators in Congress aligned with the Democratic Party in December that year, led by Bangkok born Senator Tammy Duckworth as well as Senator Bob Menendez and Dick Durban, issuing a robust statement supporting the street protests.

US Democratic senators voiced support for protesters

66-year-old Senator Menendez particularly brought up the issue of free speech as a key human right and emphasised that the protesters at that time were not seeking a revolution but instead were calling for Thailand to align itself with key principles accepted worldwide in democracies.

‘At a time when democracy is under assault from so many quarters, it is critical that the United States Senate stands with the democracy movement in Thailand,’ Senator Menendez declared. ‘Thailand’s reformers are not seeking a revolution. They are simply yearning for democratic changes to their country’s political system, for freedom of speech and assembly, and for Thailand to be a part of the community of democratic nations. 

Defiant Thanathorn says he’s innocent

On Monday, a defiant Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit defended his statement in January 2021.

He was very critical of the government and felt he was being targeted unfairly.

‘If we can keep silent, keep our mouths shut, they win,’ he declared. ‘Whether what I said had an impact on the people or not, people can decide for themselves. But we deny all allegations and we are ready to fight until the end, believing in our innocence.’

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Further reading:

Thanathorn ordered by a court to erase vaccine comments online as a danger to national security

Thanathorn facing serious Lèse-majesté charges after Facebook broadcast on vaccination strategy

PM puts brakes on the vaccination rollout with warning that caution is the kingdom’s watchword

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