At the height of Thailand’s democracy protests, youth activists staged a campy People’s Catwalk faux fashion show on a street in Silom, a Bangkok district known for its gay nightlife.
One of the models who walked down the red carpet on October 29, 2020, was Sainam, a 16-year-old wearing a black top, a King workout dress. Maha Vajiralongkorn was sportingly photographed during his stay in Germany and Switzerland.
The People’s Catwalk was intended to be a satirical look at the king’s daughter, Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, a fashion designer who presented a show in another part of Bangkok the same evening.
It was one of many protests held in the second half of 2020, when Thailand’s youth protesters made history by demanding restrictions on the power of the king, whose role at the top of the constitutional order is rarely challenged in public. The activists tested the limits of the kingdom’s oppressive leste majesty law, which makes it a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment for “defaming, insulting or threatening” members of the royal family.
A little over a year later, Sainam – his lawyers withhold his last name due to his age – is one of many people charged with leste majesty for the fashion show and a separate incident in which he was accused of spray-painting the king’s portrait.
Jatuphon Saeung (22), a female participant in the fashion show, was charged under leste majesty after posing in a pink costume and clutch purse that looked like outfits worn by Queen Suthida, the king’s wife.
The charges are part of a suppression of political disagreement and free expression in Thailand of a scale we have not seen in years, and which has escalated in recent months, according to human rights groups. Since November, Thailand’s constitutional court has effectively debated monarchy reform, and the country’s broadcasting authority has media warned not to report on the topic.
Authorities denied bail to some activists and withdrew others’ passports. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military-backed, royal government has approved a draft law on non-governmental organizations that could hinder or prevent civil society groups from working in Thailand, according to Amnesty International.
“The level of repression has reached a new high,” said Sunai Phasuk, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s not just about targeting activists or NGOs or human rights groups or the media; it is about completely shutting down civil space. ”
A government spokesman said the draft NGO law would have to comply with the constitution, adding that although they understand civic groups’ concerns, there is a need for “accountability and transparency” in the sector. The spokesperson did not respond to questions about the leste majesty prosecutions or warnings to the media.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, representing some of the people charged leste majesty, which includes children, said it had handled 164 cases involving 168 individuals in the past year, the largest number it had ever encountered.
“Before we had high-profile cases, but not so many in number,” said Sirikan Charoensiri, a Thai lawyer at the group. “And the people charged are young.”
According to human rights groups and activists, the protests during which activists wore crop tops apparently got on their nerves. Seven people, including protest leader Chiwarak “Penguin” Moat and two 17-year-olds were also charged with leste majesty after carrying on another demonstration in December 2020 in a shopping mall in Bangkok.
“It’s very difficult to say why this form of dress may be an insult or slander of the king,” said Yingcheep Atchanont, manager of iLaw, a Thai NGO.
In the first years of the reign of Vajiralongkorn, who succeeded his father Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016, no leste majesty charges were brought.
But that changed in 2020 after the young activists shocked traditionalist Thais by demanding that Prayuth resign, as well as imposing restrictions on the power of the monarchy and taxpayer funds which it supports.
In October of that year, protesters marched at the German embassy in Bangkok to demand that Berlin investigate whether King Thailand rules from German soil.
Apart from their political demands, the protest leaders also imitated or mocked the royals at some protests. Penguin dress put on apparently mocking both Queen Suthida and Sirikit, the Queen Mother, while protesters wearing crop tops regularly showed up at rallies.
The Thai king appears in public in his homeland in costume or a suit. But photographers have captured the monarch, a cycling enthusiast wearing the mid-ridge-bearing top in Europe. Thais shared the photos widely online, although some pro-monarchist users argued that the images were forged.
While Thai prosecutors blaming alleged royal libel did not claim wearing a robe was a crime, their charges accused the protesters of mocking or insulting the king or other royal family members. Participants in the mall rally scribbled antimonarchist slogans on their waistline and back.
In November, authorities deported Yan Marchal, a French long-term resident of Thailand, describing him as a danger to the public. Marchal, a Thai speaker, posted satirical videos in which he mocked Prayuth and other Thai figures, including one in which he turned in a cut and referred to the king’s long stay in Germany.
“We’ve been documenting freedom of expression issues for over 10 years,” said iLaw’s Yingcheep. “We can say the past year has been the most challenging year we have ever seen.”