Published September 12, 2013
BANGKOK – Thanawat Martnok and his little brother have argued most of their lives — about their struggling business, about politics, even about their dogs. Thanawat says that's because his little brother "just never listened."
And so, one day three years ago, Thanawat decided to teach his sibling a lesson. He told police Yuthapoom Martnok had defamed Thailand's monarch — an extraordinarily grave allegation here that instantly escalated a simple family feud into an issue the justice system views as threat to the stability of the kingdom itself.
Yuthapoom was indicted on charges of "lese majeste" — insulting the royal family — a crime punishable by up to 15 years behind bars. Denied bail on national security grounds, he has been jailed for a year in a Bangkok prison where he is anxiously awaiting the court's verdict Friday.
Such charges were once rare in Thailand, but they have become more common since a 2006 military coup intensified a bitter societal divide in the Southeast Asian country. Critics complain that lese majeste laws are vulnerable to being abused by political rivals to destroy enemies.
Yuthapoom's case is unusual, and worrying to some, not only because it pits one brother's word against another, but because the alleged transgressions are said to have occurred in private, in the sanctity of their home. Thanawat is his brother's only accuser, and other relatives say Yuthapoom is innocent.
"It's a bizarre case that shows lese majeste can be used not just as a political weapon, but in any kind of conflict — even one involving a family," said Chiranuch Premchaiporn, a Thai webmaster who received an eight-month suspended sentence last year over Internet comments that prosecutors deemed insulting to the crown. She was accused not of posting the comments, but of deleting them too slowly from her news website.
Chiranuch said Yuthapoom's case "shows how easily the law can be abused. It also shows why we need to reform it."
Yuthapoom staunchly denies the charges, saying he would never defame King Bhumibol Adulyadej or the royal family. The king, who ascended to the throne in 1946 and is now the world's longest-serving monarch, is 85 and ailing but remains widely beloved in the nation of 66 million. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, and its government is run by an elected parliament and prime minister.
Yuthapoom said his elder brother falsely accused him in a bid to seize the car-cleaning-liquid business the siblings once ran together. Thanawat now controls the business.
"This is a family feud that has been blown way out of proportion," Yuthapoom, 36, told The Associated Press at Bangkok's Remand Prison. "I can't believe my own brother would do this to me. I'm still trying to grasp how it came to this."
Interviews with the siblings, their sister and Yuthapoom's wife paint a long history of enmity between the brothers.
Thanawat, 38, said that while growing up in northeastern Thailand, he clashed with his brother "all the time" because they were so different.
Thanawat was the quieter of the two, an introvert who never drank and never smoked. Yuthapoom, on the other hand, was loud and guzzled alcohol often after work, according to his family.
Nevertheless, the two ended up living together in a three-bedroom Bangkok house from 2006 until 2009, along with Yuthapoom's wife and Thanawat's girlfriend. The brothers often fought; Thanawat said he was especially angry over the many discounts Yuthapoom gave to clients.
After one skirmish in 2009, Yuthapoom drew a knife; he claims it was self-defense because Thanawat kicked him in the chest. The police were called, but no charges were filed. Then Thanawat moved out for good.
A month later, Thanawat filed an official lese majeste complaint, alleging that Yuthapoom had cursed the king months before the knife incident as the pair watched him on television. He also accused Yuthapoom of scrawling a two-word insult against the monarch on a video CD around the same time.
Pinyo Ruaylarp, the brothers' 42-year-old sister, said the officer who received the complaint initially tried to dissuade Thanawat from filing it, believing it to be nothing more than a venomous family spat since it was filed well after the alleged crimes occurred. But she said Thanawat was adamant, and the complaint duly made its way to the Office of the Attorney General.
Media operating in Thailand cannot publish the content of the alleged insults because doing so would also be a violation of the country's lese majeste laws.
Thanawat told AP that he didn't report Yuthapoom's transgressions right away "because I thought he could still listen, that he could change." But their last fight was so severe he decided he had no choice.
"There was no other way to talk sense into him," Thanawat said in the living room of his small Bangkok home, where a portrait of the king hangs on the wall. "He had to be taught a lesson."
Thanawat said that although he has argued with his brother about many things unrelated to the king, his allegation is true. The interests of the nation and the monarchy "are important than family," he said.
Pinyo said the case has devastated their mother, On Suthison. She testified that she had never heard Yuthapoom defame the crown and didn't believe he could do so, according to defense lawyer Saovalux Pongam, who has taken the case pro-bono. On testified that Yuthapoom loved the king dearly and often lit candles at home to commemorate his birthday.
David Streckfuss, an American expert on lese majeste at Thailand's Khon Kaen University, called the case exceptional not only because "they obviously have some family issues to resolve," but because the alleged crimes occurred in the privacy of the brothers' household.
Most lese majeste trials in Thailand have involved defamation that occurred in the public domain — through a speech, on the Internet, or in one instance by spray-painting graffiti over outdoor portraits of the king. Streckfuss said one foreigner had also been charged for insulting the monarchy during a private conversation overheard in a restaurant.
"Hopefully this will not be a new trend," Streckfuss said. He said that if Yuthapoom is convicted Friday, "it will be a significant step toward extending lese majeste coverage, something that says that what goes on in the privacy of your own home is no longer private."
The case already has taken a toll, and not solely on Yuthapoom. Thanawat is now estranged from the rest of his family.
Their mother, Thanawat said bitterly, "always liked Yuthapoom best."
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.