efe-epaBy Noel Caballero Bangkok

Since King Maha Vajiralongkorn – whose coronation rites are to be held this weekend – ascended the throne in Thailand in 2016, the number of cases of lese-majeste, a draconian law that stipulates prison terms for violating the dignity of the country's royal family, have fallen sharply.

Despite not being used much in the courts, the lese-majeste law – under which anyone found guilty can be imprisoned for between three to 15 years – remains in force in the penal code and continues to gag freedom of expression, Sasinan Thamnithinan of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights told EFE.

In 2018, there were only three cases initiated, whereas so far this year no charges in this regard have been filed, according to data from TLHR, which offers free legal aid to those accused under this law.

This data lies in stark contrast to the 13 cases opened in 2014 following the military coup, which occurred under King Maha Vajiralongkorn's late father King Bhumibol, 15 cases in 2015 and 14 in 2017.

Although there is no official explanation about the change in the application of the law by the authorities, a TLHR report in January said it may be directly related to the succession.

"Lese-majeste is still a political weapon, but the prosecution, instead of proceeding with this crime, now chooses to charge the defendants with other precepts such as the law of computer crimes or charges of sedition," Thamnithinan said.

Moreover, according to Thamnithinan, judges have also dismissed or granted bail in cases of lese-majeste even when the accused had previously confessed his guilt.

After the coup in 2014 and before the current king ascended the throne, cases of lese-majeste were transfered to military courts where very severe sentences were handed out and defense lawyers were subject to several restrictions.

Currently, around a dozen cases – half of them against people with proven mental health problems – are awaiting sentencing in the courts, and around 50 people are in prison under this law.

Porntip Mankong, who served two and a half years in prison for lese-majeste and was released in 2016, told EFE that there is a stigma in society against those accused of this crime, and at the same time, there is a sense of community among those found guilty, which helps them face it.

The King, 66, has spent a large part of his life abroad, away from the day-to-day activities associated with royalty.

His father, King Bhumibol, died on Oct.13, 2016 at the age of 88 and was enormously popular among Thai people.

Since ascending the throne, the current monarch has reinforced his powers with the approval of several legal reforms that, among other things, have put the vast heritage of the Crown and several state agencies responsible for his security under his sole authority.

"Without notice, everything can change and the lese-majeste law can be applied again," the Thai lawyer Thamnithinan said.

In April, days after the elections of Mar. 24, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army, Gen. Apirat Kongsompon, threatened to use the lese-majeste law against progressive intellectuals, in reference to the emerging Anakot Mai (New Future) party, if they attempted to challenge the current system of constitutional monarchy.