Thai police arrest 2nd teenager for defaming monarchy amid renewed debate over rigorous law

BANGKOK (AP) — Authorities in Thailand have charged a 16-year-old girl with defaming the monarchy for two messages she allegedly posted on Facebook two years ago, adding to an increasingly active debate over whether the law allowing her arrest should be reformed.

Police charged the girl in the northern province of Phitsanulok on Monday with violating the lese majeste law and the Computer Crime Act, according to a statement from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a legal advocacy group. It said on Wednesday that police originally summoned her in 2021 when she was 14 years old, which appears to make her the youngest person in Thailand to face the charge.

The lese majeste law, also known as Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code, makes insulting the monarch, his immediate family and the regent punishable by three to 15 years in prison.

It has long been controversial, especially because anyone, not just the royal family, can file a complaint with police. Critics say the law is often used as a tool to quash political dissent, and point to the many arrests of pro-democracy protesters by the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

The subject became an issue in Sunday’s general election, in which the two top opposition vote-getting parties had acknowledged the need to consider changes to the law. Conservative-leaning parties, which have ruled Thailand since a 2014 coup, are in favor of maintaining it.

The top-ranked Move Forward Party, which has been more forthright in calling for reforms, has proposed an amendment to reduce the punishment. Its stand is seen by conservatives as radical, and may jeopardize its chances of forming a government when Parliament meets in July to select a new prime minister.

Devotion to the monarchy has long been a pillar of Thai society, and until recent years, the institution was considered untouchable. But sharp political schisms that began appearing two decades ago affected its reputation, particularly among young people seeking change.

The girl charged Monday denied all charges and was granted bail by the provincial juvenile court, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. It said the police initially decided not to press charges against her, but were later instructed to do so by the local prosecutors. The Associated Press is not naming her because she’s a minor.

At least 244 people have been charged with lese majeste in 264 cases since November 2020, when Prayuth’s government was facing street protests by student-led groups seeking greater democracy, including reforms of the monarchy.

At least 19 minors have been accused of the offense in that period, including four who were younger than 15 years, the lawyers group said.

In March, a 15-year-old girl was arrested in Bangkok and charged with lese majeste. She was detained by police as she was observing the arrest of an artist who spray-painted a message on the wall of Bangkok’s Grand Palace.

She was charged with lese majeste for participating in a political rally last year calling for an abolishment of the law when she was 14 years old, and has since been detained at a juvenile detention center in Nakhon Pathom province, west of Bangkok.

The arrest and prolonged detention of the girl drew widespread criticism from human rights groups both domestic and international. Human Rights Watch last month called for authorities to immediately drop charges and release her.

“By arresting a 15-year-old girl, the Thai government is sending the spine-chilling message that even children aren’t safe from being harshly punished for expressing their opinions,” Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said.

The Central Juvenile and Family Court in Bangkok released a statement last week saying her arrest and detention was lawful.

The girl remains locked up despite concerns that she would be forced to drop out from her school, which started a new semester on Tuesday.


Associated Press writer Grant Peck contributed to this report.