Joking in Thailand is dangerous – up to 15 years

In Thailand, an airline joke posted on April 1 sparked anger among Thais and criminal prosecution for “insulting” the king.

An April 1 joke by employees of budget airline Thai Vietjet led to criminal prosecution after an activist lawyer filed a complaint with police alleging that the airline’s message insulted Thailand’s King Maha Vachiralongkorn, Reuters reported.

Police in Thailand has decided to file criminal charges against employees of Vietjet’s Vietnamese airline unit in Thailand. The charge was brought under the Lèse-majesté law on insult to majesty, which makes defamation of the monarchy punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

On April 1, the official account of Vietjet’s Thai office tweeted that the airline was allegedly launching a new international route between the Thai province of Nan in northern Thailand and the city of Munich in Germany, where the king often visited for personal purposes. In 2020, for example, reports surfaced that King Maha X had been waiting out the pandemic at the four-star German Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl.

The April Fool’s joke also plays on the fact that before becoming king, Vachiralongkorn spent more time in Germany than in the country he now heads. For example, shortly after ascending the throne he demanded that the new Thai constitution be written in such a way as to allow him to spend time outside Thailand without appointing a regent in his absence, effectively allowing him to rule from abroad.

The airline’s joke message sparked online anger and threats to boycott the airline among ultra-royalists.

The offensive tweet was later deleted, and the airline apologized the next day in a statement saying senior management was unaware of the mock tweet, which advertised “a route between a province of Thailand and a city in Europe, leading to numerous public reactions.”

The tweet did not mention the 69-year-old King of Thailand, Maha Vachiralongkorn, who has a home in Germany, where the monarch spends time with his royal noble wife Sininat Wongwajirapakdi, who was born in the Thai province of Nan.

The king conferred the title of royal consort on Sininat shortly after his coronation in 2019. Earlier that year, the king had married a member of his personal bodyguard unit, who became Queen Sutida.

During the “student” protests in Thailand in recent years, some activists have openly criticized the king, particularly for the monarch’s time away from the country. At least 183 people have been accused of insulting the monarchy since the protests began in 2020.

Vietjet airline CEO Voranat Laprabang responded to the royalist outrage online by saying the guilty employees have been suspended pending an investigation. “I would like to apologize again to the Thai people for this incident,” Voranat said.

Nevertheless, lawyer and activist Srisuwan Janya filed a police report alleging royal insult and computer crime, saying on his social media page that the tweet “showed intent to insult” and an apology was not enough.

Srisuwan is well known in Thailand as an active complainer. He once told the Bangkok Post newspaper that he had written more than one thousand complaints, including consumer fraud, corruption, and environmental problems. How many of his complaints led to prosecutions could not be ascertained.

Police will review the complaint after examining “all the facts” surrounding what happened and determine “whether there was criminal intent,” Deputy Thai Police Spokesman Kisana Phathanacharoen told local media.

Thailand’s laws banning insults to honor and dignity have recently been criticized by some activists and opposition politicians, a rather bold move in a country where the king is traditionally considered a demigod and is above any criticism.

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