Thai Twitter users face threats over comments on royal motorcade

A viral picture by a Twitter user showing that an ambulance was halted in Bangkok. It also shows that a hashtag in Thai language which translates into #royalmotorcade is trending. Photo from Prachatai website.

This edited article is from Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand, and is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement. It gives a background over a viral hashtag that saw rare online criticism of the monarchy. A few days later, the government arrested an activist for insulting the monarchy but authorities said it had nothing to do with the online comments about the motorcade. However, the arrest sparked fear that those who used the viral hashtag can be targeted as well.

On 1 October 2019, the hashtag #ขบวนเสด็จ or #royalmotorcade trended on Twitter in Thailand as innumerable critical tweets were posted in response to a royal motorcade causing a traffic jam around Victory Monument, Bangkok, in the evening rush hour. It remains unknown who was being transported in the royal motorcade. The hashtag trended despite legal restrictions on criticism of the Thai royal family. However, several users reported receiving threatening messages over their critical tweets.

One tweet, which received 36.6K retweets, claimed that an ambulance had to turn off its emergency siren when the royal motorcade passed by. Another with 46k retweets reported that 2 ambulances were halted.

Another Twitter user also posted a similar tweet with 10.4k retweets, but the tweet is no longer accessible along with the account because of a witch hunt. A post appeared on Facebook saying that the tweet was fake news and an act of instigation. The post also revealed pictures which were claimed to be of the owner of the Twitter account. The post has been deleted.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that an activist who commented on the hashtag also faced a threat from a sender who claimed to be from the Palace. The text message says “Please delete all your social network accounts by tonight for your safety.” Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said the threat had no legal basis and the Palace should investigate if it was made by an imposter.

Our reporter contacted the Bureau of the Royal Household on this matter. The person who answered said that the Bureau was not in charge of this matter and therefore was unable to give an answer, but personally believed that it was unlikely to come from the Palace because usually they have never responded to anything in this way.

Users on Twitter also reported that pedestrians were not allowed to walk to BTS Victory Monument Station. According to Thai custom, feet cannot be at any point above the head of a royal family member.

The hashtag #royalmotorcade existed earlier, but it did not go viral until the night of 1 October and the afternoon of the following day when the hashtag topped Thailand’s trends with 250k tweets.

Also viral were posts on social media about a news report from June of the Japanese Emperor Naruhito who stopped a royal motorcade at a side lane so that an ambulance could go first.

Bangkok is the 8th worst city in the world for traffic jams with an average congestion rate of 53% according to TomTom, a traffic data provider from the Netherlands.

iLaw, an independent organization, reported that according to the 2019 Road Traffic Act an emergency vehicle is allowed to cross any red light and park at any restricted area. Pedestrians must stop and stay at the side of the road. Other vehicles (including animals) must stop or park on the left and must not stop in an intersection.

But while an ambulance fits the legal definition of an emergency vehicle, along with fire trucks and other vehicles with sirens authorized by the Royal Thai Police, it is not clear if a royal motorcade has the same status, nor which will prevail when emergency vehicles use the same route.

In 2010, the Principal Private Secretary of the late King Bhumibol established a committee to design a protocol for royal motorcades so that they would cause the least inconvenience to people. The idea was based on the late King’s concerns expressed in 2001.

The protocol includes no enforced stoppage on frontage roads and opposite lanes. Pedestrians can also walk on overpasses as long as there are no safety concerns. BBC Thai reported Superintendent of Phayathai Police Station saying that the police still followed the protocols.

Critics of the traffic jam caused by the motorcade may risk prosecution under Section 112 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes defamation, insult, or threats to the King, Queen, Heir-Apparent, or Regent and carries a maximum jail term of 15 years, with currently at least 25 people reportedly in jail for lèse majesté. Any such prosecution would depend on who was in the motorcade.

Section 14 of Computer Crime Act, enforced more frequently when the military grabbed power in 2014, may also apply. This carries a maximum jail term of 5 years and/or fine of 100,000 Baht (3,200 US Dollars) for anyone who imports into a computer system data, such as tweets, that is deemed a danger to national security.

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