Thai minister urges 'social sanctions' as mobs hunt royal critics

Thais should "socially sanction" those who defame the monarchy following King Bhumibol Adulyadej's death, the junta's justice minister said Tuesday, as fresh videos emerged of mob justice against people accused of insulting the institution. The death on Thursday of the world's longest reigning monarch has left the nation bereft of its key pillar of unity and seen mass outpourings of grief from black-clad Thais. But it has also unleashed small but vocal ultra-monarchist forces, including mobs and online crusaders scouring the web and bent on punishing anyone perceived to have insulted the monarchy. "There is no better way to punish these people than to socially sanction them," Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya told reporters on Tuesday, as he vowed to "pursue those people who violate the law". His message comes amid a growing number of cases of vigilantism by royalist Thais against people accused of insulting the monarchy. At 10.30am a video was broadcast live on Facebook showing a mob kicking and beating a man and forcing him to prostrate himself in apology for allegedly insulting the monarchy. During the beating, which appeared to take place in Chonburi east of Bangkok, the man cried out: "I didn't mean to do it, I love the king! It's my fault." Another video uploaded to social media late Monday showed an elderly woman on a Bangkok bus being berated and slapped in the face by commuters in the presence of police over alleged comments. Thailand's monarchy is protected by a draconian lese majeste law that outlaws criticism with punishments of up to 15 years in jail for each insult uttered. Prosecutions have surged under the military which seized power two years ago, and record-breaking sentences have been handed down in some cases. - 'Bunker mentality' - The arch-royalist junta has done little to tamp down hardline public sentiment by presenting the monarchy as under attack, said David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based expert on the monarchy. "They've created a sort of bunker mentality," he said, adding that there was no evidence of a genuine republican movement in Thailand to justify such an approach. "The closest thing to any anti-monarchy movement is just a variety of unconnected individuals who want to be able to make public comments about the monarchy as it is an important public institution," he told AFP. The lese majeste law makes detailed discussion or debate about the monarchy's role -- and its future after Bhumibol's 70-year reign -- all but impossible. The atmosphere in Bangkok has been overwhelmingly sombre and calm since the death of the king. Late Monday Bhumibol's oldest daughter, Princess Ubolratana, 65, made a surprise visit to well-wishers outside the Grand Palace. "We have to work to move forwards, not backwards," she said according to video uploaded by eyewitnesses. But there has been an uptick of angry social media calls by hardline royalists for vigilante action against alleged transgressors of '112' -- the criminal code that covers the feared law. On Sunday a woman on Samui island was forced by police to kneel below a portrait of King Bhumibol in front of a baying mob after she allegedly posted an insulting comment about the monarchy on Facebook. She has since been charged with lese majeste. Similar mobs have formed on the southern island of Phuket and in nearby Phang Nga province, sparked by alleged comments. Other social media users have berated those deemed not to be mourning sufficiently deeply or failing to wear black clothes. The latter phenomenon dubbed "black-shaming" has been condemned by the junta. Its leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha did not address the mob violence when he briefed reporters on Tuesday, though he urged Thais not to make inflammatory comments. "I ask for cooperation from public not to broadcast or send such messages as it hurts the feeling of Thai people and is illegal," he said. Media inside Thailand, both local and foreign, must heavily self-censor because of the lese majeste law. But authorities struggle to censor critics or media based overseas. Justice minister Paiboon said the junta would renew extradition requests for Thais abroad -- something that is unlikely to sway governments in countries where lese majeste is not a crime.