The second son of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn made a surprise visit to a New York exhibition featuring the stories of people who have been prosecuted under the country’s harsh royal defamation laws, signaling a willingness to talk openly about the taboo topic.
Thailand has some of the world’s strictest lese majeste laws, and criticizing the King, Queen, or heir apparent can lead to a maximum 15-year prison sentence for each offense, which makes even talking about the royal family fraught with risk.
Sentences for those convicted under Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code can be decades long and hundreds of people have been prosecuted in recent years.
The exhibition, named Faces Of Victims Of 112, was held at the LeRoy Neiman Gallery at New York’s Columbia University by Thai dissident Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an outspoken critic of the Thai monarchy and a royal academic who himself faces charges under lese majeste.
Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse, 42, the King’s second-oldest son, who lives in New York, confirmed that he went to see the exhibition on his official Facebook page Monday.
“I love and hold my loyalty to the monarchy, but I believe that ‘knowing’ is better than ‘not knowing,’ and each individual has their own opinion which is derived from their own experiences,” Vacharaesorn wrote.
“Even if we don’t listen to their opinions, it doesn’t mean that their viewpoints and opinions don’t exist. Therefore, it is good to know and listen and hear reasons and viewpoints from parties.”
He added that “it is another matter whether to agree or disagree, but we have to talk with principles.”
Vacharaesorn’s presence at the exhibition comes a month after he returned to Thailand for the first time in almost three decades, since his family’s estrangement from the royal family following his parents’ divorce in 1996.
That highly-publicized visit by Vacharaesorn and his younger brother was seen as especially significant by analysts because the King, who is 71, has not named an heir apparent since ascending to the throne in 2016.
Analysts saw the visit as a testing of the waters for a future potential homecoming.
It also came at a delicate time for the monarchy, with growing calls from the public for royal reform, especially among younger Thais – making his presence at the exhibition particularly significant and loaded with symbolism.
Pavin, who ran the exhibition, posted photos on his Facebook page of himself and Vacharaesorn speaking with each other at the event next to images of 25 Thais who have been prosecuted under lese majeste.
“This was such a civilized way to talk about an issue which is full of ‘barbarity.’ The society can’t move forward if the old power doesn’t open their mind to listen to the problem,” he wrote.
Speaking to CNN, Pavin said Vacharaesorn’s presence was “important” because “the topic itself is so significant.”
“Making a dialogue is better than turning our backs away from the problem,” he said. “You can’t run away from this issue.”
Pavin, associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, said the visit was significant because it “signals a certain willingness of the establishment in Thailand to move ahead for sake of its own survival.”
“For him to pay attention to this very important issue, from an academic viewpoint, this could produce a lot of important implications on Thai politics,” he said.
Thailand has been run for decades by a small but powerful clique that maintains deep ties to the military, royalist and business establishments.
King Vajiralongkorn assumed the throne following the 2016 death of his father Bhumibol Adulyadej who had reigned for 70 years.
Military coups against democratic governments dotted Bhumibol’s reign, often in the name of protecting the monarchy from a perceived threat, and lese majeste prosecutions were frequently brought against critics of both the royal family and the military elite.
“If the King can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down upon him, because the King is not being treated as a human being,” he said in his 2005 birthday speech. “The King can do wrong.”
Nonetheless lese majeste prosecutions continued in the last decade of his reign, and increased dramatically when the military seized power in a 2014 coup.
In 2020, mass anti-government protests swept the Southeast Asian nation demanding democratic, military and constitutional reforms. An unprecedented demand was royal reform to ensure the King is answerable to the constitution and amendments to the royal insult law.
Elections in May saw progressive party Move Forward turn those protest demands, including lese majeste reforms, into a successful political campaign that resonated with the Thai public, winning the party the most seats in parliament.
But the party was sidelined over its royal reform agenda. Thailand’s new Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin of the populist Pheu Thai party has said the coalition government won’t touch amendments to lese majeste and has formed a coalition government with the help of the same military-backed forces that toppled previous democratically elected administrations.
For years, human rights organizations and free speech campaigners have said lese majeste has been used as a political tool to silence critics of the Thai government.
Anyone – ordinary citizens as well as the government – can bring lese majeste charges on behalf of the King, even if they are not directly involved with the case.
Those who have fallen foul of the law in the past include one man accused of “liking” a Facebook page deemed insulting to the late King Bhumibol and posting a sarcastic photo of his pet dog.
In 2021, a Thai woman was handed a 43-year jail sentence, believed to be the toughest ever imposed, after pleading guilty to sharing audio clips on YouTube and Facebook that were deemed critical of the royal family.
Local NGO Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) said that since the start of the mass protests beginning in July 2020 and up until July 2023, at least 1,918 people have been prosecuted for their political participation and expression, with 215 of those cases involving children.
At least 253 people have been charged with lese majeste during that time, the group said.
The current wave of lese majeste charges and arrests comes after former Thai Prime Minister and coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha pledged to protect the monarchy against pro-democracy protesters in 2020, according to TLHR.
Once a taboo subject, the issue of royal reform and amendments to lese majeste has seen a turning point since the protests, with people increasingly speaking about the monarchy openly and publicly, despite the legal risks.
Though the reformist Move Forward party now finds itself in the opposition and parliamentary discussion of 112 off the table, those within the youth movement say these issues are now in the public consciousness and will not easily be suppressed.