Thailand junta vows to 'hunt' fugitive lese majeste suspects

Thai national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung (right) addresses reporters during a press conference at the Royal Thai Police headquarters in Bangkok on Nov 25, 2014. The Thai junta on Wednesday, Dec 17, 2014, said it will "hunt" fugitives wante
Thai national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung (right) addresses reporters during a press conference at the Royal Thai Police headquarters in Bangkok on Nov 25, 2014. The Thai junta on Wednesday, Dec 17, 2014, said it will "hunt" fugitives wanted under the kingdom's strict royal defamation law, vowing to press foreign governments to hand over suspects seeking sanctuary abroad. -- PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - The Thai junta on Wednesday said it will "hunt" fugitives wanted under the kingdom's strict royal defamation law, vowing to press foreign governments to hand over suspects seeking sanctuary abroad.

Rights groups say cases breaching Article 112 of the penal code - which protects the monarchy from criticism - have surged since the May coup, as the military burnishes its reputation as the defender of the royal family.

Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who is also prime minister, has said scores of people are living outside the country to evade legal processes including charges of lese majeste - each count of which carries up to 15 years in jail.

On Wednesday one of his deputies said Thailand will contact the countries they have fled to - without naming the nations.

Lese majeste suspects are known to be in France and the United Kingdom among other nations.

"We will hunt and arrest all of these suspects," Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters.

"We want to explain to foreign countries that these people have breached an article of Thai law that qualifies them for extradition," Prawit, who is also defence minister, added.

"We focus on violators of Article 112 because these people have a bad attitude towards the monarchy," he said, adding that the "issue is crucial".

Prawit said Thai officials are also searching for those responsible for a rumour that caused the Thai stock market to tank nine percent in early trading on Monday.

His boss, Prime Minister Prayut, on Tuesday said false rumours about the health of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulaydej, 87, were behind the slump, which corrected itself by the close of trading.

The Thai king, revered but ailing, has spent the last few months in hospital and has undergone surgery to remove his gall bladder.

He cancelled a scheduled annual appearance for his birthday on December 5.

On Monday the palace issued a statement saying his overall health was improving.

Thailand is beset by anxiety over his health and the future of the kingdom once his reign ends.

Critics say the lese majeste law is increasingly targeting political opponents of the royalist Bangkok-based establishment, who broadly supported Prayut's power grab from an elected government in May.