BANGKOK (AFP) - 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 the controversial lese majeste law.
Student Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and activist Porntip Mankong, 26, were sentenced after pleading 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 sentenced to five years in prison each but the term was reduced to two years and six months 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 said.
The pair had each been charged with one count of lese majeste linked to the performance at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, which marked the 40th anniversary of a pro-democracy student protest at the campus that was brutally crushed by the military regime in October 1973.
After the sentencing the pair’s lawyer Pawinee Chumsri said the two “would not appeal” the ruling.
Police are hunting for at least six others involved in the performance for allegedly violating "112" - the feared section of the Thai criminal code which carries up to 15 years in jail for each count of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent.
Of those on the wanted list, at least two have fled Thailand, joining dozens of academics, activists and political opponents of the coup in self-exile amid a surge in royal defamation cases since the military seized power in May.
Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, is revered by many in the country as a demi-god and shielded by one of the world's most draconian royal defamation laws.
The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) said at least 40 people have been arrested since the coup - seven of them have already been sentenced to between three and 15 years in prison.
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 as 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, which is bolstering its self-designated role as protector of the monarchy.
Andrea Giorgetta from FIDH said 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." Recent "112" convictions include a taxi driver jailed for two-and-a-half years after his passenger recorded their conversation on a mobile phone, while a student, 24, was sentenced to the same period of time for defaming the monarchy in a message posted on Facebook.
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 ailing king, the world's longest-serving monarch, eventually ends.
Discussion of succession is also restricted in Thailand under the lese majeste law.