Thai Rising Star Activist Sentenced to Two Years

Move Forward politician and former pro-democracy activist Chonthicha

Thai activist-turned-lawmaker —a prominent figure of the country’s pro-democracy movement and a member of the Move Forward Party that during last year’s parliamentary elections—was sentenced on Monday to two years in prison for royal defamation related to her involvement in a 2021 demonstration.

Lookkate, who was recently included in TIME’s list of , which published in print also on Monday, denies the charge and has filed an appeal. The court has granted her bail until a final decision is made. If the conviction stands, however, Lookkate would be stripped of her MP status.

“TIME Magazine looks at me like [a] next generation leader trying to change the world,” Lookkate told TIME after leaving the court in Pathum Thani, a province just north of Bangkok, on Monday. “But in Thailand, they look at me like someone dangerous to the society, or a criminal—which is really sad.”

Lookkate’s prosecution is the latest blow to the country’s pro-democracy movement, which has been growing since a decade ago when thousands of young protesters to call for reform of the country’s conservative, royal- and military-linked government.

“It’s not just only about my story, but it’s about political activists in Thailand,” Lookkate says, claiming that her criminalization under the country’s , which bars criticism of the monarchy, “makes all the activists feel unsafe.”

“The lese-majeste conviction against Ms. Chonthicha, unfortunately, does not come as a surprise,” Akarachai Chaimaneekarakate, a representative from legal advocacy group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), tells TIME. “It is consistent with Thai courts’ practice of using the lese-majeste law to silence and punish legitimate criticisms of the monarchy.”

According to , there are around 2,000 people who have been prosecuted for political expression since 2020, 272 of whom have been charged with lese-majeste offenses.

As the protest movement has faced intense pushback from authorities over the years, Lookkate is among a new generation of Thai activists who have sought to bring their reform agenda into government through politics. 

“I realized one thing,” she in an interview in April. “If we want to make a sound, we cannot only make change on the street. We also need to get into power, and use this power to make a change—to build a society that we want to see.”

The Move Forward Party, which advocated for sweeping change, earned a shock victory last May when it emerged as the biggest vote-getter in national elections, winning a plurality 151 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives. But the party has since been hampered by political and legal challenges—from being to the by the Constitutional Court for its efforts to amend the lese-majeste law.

In December, Rukchanok Srinok, another Move Forward lawmaker, was to six years in prison for charges including royal defamation. (She was similarly granted bail.)

As Thailand’s government, under , tries to project a renewed image of political stability and economic viability, it has for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

But critics say high-profile cases such as Lookkate’s as well as that of —a 28-year-old detained activist who died earlier this month after going on hunger strike to protest the judicial system and imprisonment of political dissenters—highlight the glaring inadequacy of .

“As long as the price for fundamental freedoms are the lives of Thais or their imprisonment,” Akarachai says, “Thailand does not deserve a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council.”