It was last December that Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a Thai student activist, and her friends strolled into a shopping mall in Bangkok wearing crop tops. They ate ice cream and carried dog-shaped balloons. Phrases such as “I have only one father” were written in marker pen on their skin.
Now, four of them are in pre-trial detention over the outing, which royalists say was an insult to the monarchy.
Their clothing, as well their messages and physical expressions were an attempt to publicly mock the Thai King, Maha Vajiralongkorn, according to a legal complaint filed against the group. It alleged they had tried to make others lose faith in the institution, and accused them of breaching Thailand’s lese-majesty law, which can lead to a sentence of up to 15 years.
The king is known for owning poodles, and royalists consider the monarch as the “father” of the nation. But it was also their choice of attire that offended royalists – images of the Thai king wearing crop tops have previously appeared online and in European tabloids. The legal complaint does not directly comment on the veracity of such images.
“Initially, the young protesters thought Thai authorities would not accuse anybody of 112 for wearing crop tops,” said Panusaya’s lawyer Krisadang Nutcharut, referencing the section of the criminal code that includes the lese-majesty law. “I am telling everyone now that they should be aware it might lead to an indictment.”
The legal complaint was acknowledged earlier this year, but it was last week that Panusaya was denied bail over the case in a judgment that, lawyers say, demonstrates the increasingly harsh stance taken by authorities.
On Saturday, a small group of protesters gathered in central Bangkok wearing crop tops to show support for those detained. “We want to show that wearing a crop top is not illegal. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression,” said a speaker at the gathering. The numbers 112, crossed out with a line, were written on her stomach.
The lese-majesty law was revived in November 2020 as the authorities sought to crack down on a youth-led protest movement that has called for reform of the monarchy. Initially, bail was offered, but the majority of protest leaders are now in prison.
The number of cases filed against protesters has also escalated to record levels, adds Krisadang, of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR). Panusaya faces nine lese-majesty cases (up to 135 years in prison); fellow student protester Parit Chiwarak, known as Penguin, who is also in pre-trial detention, faces the highest number, with 22 cases (330 years).
Krisadang said that in the 40 years since he was a law student, he has never seen such vast use of the law. “Three years ago I absolutely had no idea this would be possible,” said Krisadang. “This phenomenon is revealing to us what has been swept under the carpet.”
More than 150 people are facing lese-majesty complaints. The alleged offences range from wearing fancy dress that are said to mock the royals, to making speeches calling for reform, or posting perceived criticisms of the monarchy on social media. Twelve children are among those facing charges.
It was the filing of a lese-majesty case against a minor who had worn a crop top to a demonstration last year that prompted Panusaya and fellow activists to hold their shopping mall protest – called the #LetsWearCropTops parade. The minor, who was 16 at the time, was accused of lese-majesty for attending a protest wearing a crop top, and displaying a message on their back that said their father’s name was not Vajiralongkorn. .
Panusaya – along with activists Parit, Benja Apan, Panupong Jadnok, and Phawat Hiranphon – wore crop tops to show support for the teenager.
It is not clear how long Panusaya, 23, a sociology and anthropology student at Thammasat University, will be held. On Monday, her bail was also revoked in relation to a separate lese-majesty case, after the court said she had violated her bail conditions by continuing her activism. It cited a social media post in which she had invited people to wear black on 28 July, the king’s birthday, according to an account given by TLHR.
Parit, a political science student at Thammasat, has been detained for more than 100 days.
Krisadang believes Panusaya has not violated her bail terms, adding that bail is granted even in criminal cases with more severe sentences.
The Thai government recently defended the lese-majesty law, after UN member states expressed concern about the sharp rise in cases. It argued the law protects the royal family and national security. Earlier this month, the constitutional court ruled that protesters’ calls for reform of the monarchy amounted to an attempt to overthrow it, a decision that human rights groups fear could lead to charges of treason against activists.
At Saturday’s protest, the group of demonstrators said in a statement that people should not be jailed for expressing political opinions, and every citizen has a right to bail, the group said in a statement.
“Before the judgment, the accused is presumed innocent and treated as innocent,” said one protest sign. “We don’t want an absolute monarchy system,” another placard read. One sign simply questioned: “How could the crop top be a threat?”