Thai king's estranged son urges open discussion of monarchy, in rejection of anti-defamation law

BANGKOK (AP) — An estranged son of Thailand’s king who has spent almost all his adult life away from his homeland has unexpectedly gone public with his belief that open discussions about the country's monarchy should be allowed, in a rejection of a harsh royal anti-defamation law.

Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse, one of the king’s five sons, posted his opinion on Facebook after attending a photo exhibition in New York about people who have been charged under the law, Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code. The so-called lese majeste law makes insulting the monarch, his immediate family and the regent punishable by up to 15 years in prison per offense.

“I love and cherish the monarchy, but I believe it is better to know than not knowing. Every person has their own opinion based on their own experiences. Not listening to them doesn’t make their viewpoints or opinions disappear,” wrote Vacharaesorn, who works at a law firm in New York. “It’s another story whether you agree or disagree with them. Talk to each other with reason.”

The law is highly controversial, not only because of its tough penalties but also because anyone, not just the royal family, can file complaints about alleged violations with police. Critics say it is often used to quash political dissent and point to many arrests of pro-democracy protesters by the government of former Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a military coup in 2014 and remained the country’s leader until last month.

Supporters of the law say the monarchy is the bedrock of Thai identity and should be untouchable.

Vacharaesorn is one of four sons that King Maha Vajiralongkorn had with his second wife, Sujarinee Vivacharawongse, a former actress. In 1996 the then-crown prince divorced Sujarinee, who moved abroad with her children. Their youngest daughter was taken back by the royal family and given the title Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, but the four sons remain estranged and do not have any formal royal titles.

Vacharaesorn, 42, who had long been out of the public eye, drew major attention in August when he made a brief surprise return to Thailand, where he visited a charity organization and several Buddhist temples to participate in prayers and offerings. Before departing, he told reporters that he wishes Thailand will be “a country full of hope” and that Thai people will “respect one another, listen to one another, no matter who we are.”

His statement about Article 112 was posted after photos circulated online of him attending the exhibition at Columbia University on Monday with its organizer, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic and caustic critic of royalist Thai society who lives in exile. Pavin's Thai passport was canceled in 2014 by a military government and he now is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Royalists' unyielding objections to reform of the monarchy were highlighted after Thailand's May’s elections, in which the progressive Move Forward Party won the most seats but was denied power by Parliament. Conservative members of the military-installed Senate voted jointly with the House to block party leader Pita Limjaroenrat from becoming prime minister, citing the party’s call for a mild reform of the lese majeste law.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court gave a former lawmaker from the disbanded Future Forward Party, the predecessor of the Move Forward Party, a lifetime ban on political activity over several Facebook posts about the monarchy that it deemed a serious ethical violation of her duty as a lawmaker.

The court said the posts were made long before Pannika Wanich became a member of Parliament, but her failure to delete or modify them later showed “disrespect to the monarchy, which must be protected under the constitution.”

At least 257 people have been charged with lese majeste in 278 cases since November 2020, including at least 20 minors, according to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Prayuth's government launched the crackdown as it faced street protests by student-led groups seeking greater democracy, including reforms of the monarchy.

King Vajiralongkorn has married four times and has seven children, but has not named an official heir.