Lese majeste probe extends to Thai military

Police investigating claim that senior officers are involved in scandal over insults to royalty

BANGKOK • Thai police said yesterday that they were turning their attention to senior military officers as part of a major investigation into a network of people charged with insulting the monarchy.

The investigation has heightened scrutiny of the world's toughest lese majeste law, which critics say is often used as a political tool to discredit and silence opponents.

It also comes at a time of greater anxiety over the health of Thailand's revered but ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, and nervousness about what a royal succession could bring.

The investigation has heightened scrutiny of the world's toughest lese majeste law... It also comes at a time of greater anxiety over the health of Thailand's revered but ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, and nervousness about what a royal succession could bring.

The announcement yesterday was the latest development in a process that began last year and has widened to embroil top police officers, a former princess, some of her relatives and a fortune-teller.

"Police are investigating the allegation that military major-generals and colonels are involved," said police spokesman Major-General Piyaphand Pingmuang. "If there is firm evidence, we will issue arrest warrants immediately."

Between 40 and 50 military officers could be involved, the media reported.

King Bhumibol, the world's longest-reigning monarch, is seen as semi-divine by many Thais, but this view is hard to challenge when the law can punish anything deemed as an insult or a threat to the monarchy with up to 15 years in jail.

Police say the latest investigation is linked to a high-profile corruption scandal last year involving Pongpat Chayaphan, a senior police officer and uncle of former princess Srirasmi, the former wife of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.

She resigned from her royal post in December at the height of that investigation. Relatives of the former princess were accused of abusing the prince's name to make money.

Three people have been charged in the investigation so far.

Last month, police chief Jakthip Chaijinda presented reporters with photographs of luxury cars, guns, watches and religious amulets that police said were evidence against the three men arrested for allegedly claiming false connections to the royal family for personal gain.

One of those charged, a senior police officer, died in custody. Police said he hanged himself in his cell but refused to do an autopsy.

Since a military takeover last year, more than 50 people have been investigated for royal insults, according to iLaw, a Bangkok-based legal monitoring group.

The majority of these cases have resulted in charges.

Meanwhile, the junta has approved US$1.3 billion (S$1.8 billion) in rural subsidies, akin to the populist policies of the government it ousted, to appease disgruntled and politically powerful farmers who are struggling with record low commodity prices and weak exports.

The rural heartland of Thailand's deposed leader Yingluck Shinawatra and her exiled billionaire brother Thaksin is hurting as a result of the military government's economic policies, stirring discontent and the threat of protests.

The military government had pledged to wean farmers off expensive subsidies used by the previous government which it ousted in a coup last year.

But last week, it approved measures worth around US$1 billion to help rice farmers and on Tuesday gave the green light for US$365 million to help rubber farmers who had threatened to rally in defiance of a ban on political gatherings.

"In a situation of economic difficulty, they have to stimulate consumption and what they think is: Give grassroots people money and it will circulate," said Mr Gothom Arya, an adviser to the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Bangkok's Mahidol University.

"Though the junta's action is exactly the same as previous governments, it claims that this time money will not leak," said Mr Arya.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'Lese majeste probe extends to Thai military'. Print Edition | Subscribe