On May 24, 2023, three Thai human rights activists celebrated a hard-fought but bittersweet victory as they walked out of the South Bangkok Criminal Court as free people. These activists, namely, Angkhana Neelapaijit, Puttanee Kangkun, and Thanaporn Saleephol, had been embroiled in a contentious legal battle with Thammakaset, a poultry production company accusing them of defamation.
The bone of contention? The galling working conditions and punishingly long hours at a chicken farm owned by Thammakaset, which the activists bravely brought to light on social media during 2019 and 2020. Critics have long held Thailand’s stringent defamation laws, which carry a penalty of up to two years imprisonment or a hefty fine of up to 200,000 baht (US$5,719), in contempt.
Despite the ominous implications of these laws, the activists’ lawyer, Tittasat Soodsan, presented a convincing case. Outside the South Criminal Court, he informed AFP that the court took into consideration that the defendants’ aim wasn’t to disrepute the plaintiff, as seen by the irrelevance of the links shared in their social media posts to the plaintiff.
Thailand’s thriving agricultural export sector, which chalks up sales in the billions of dollars annually, is rife with malpractices due to the lax regulation of industries that excessively rely on migrant labor from neighboring countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. It was Thammakaset’s chicken farm situated in Lopburi province that came under the microscope for subjecting Myanmar workers to demanding work schedules, unpaid overtime, and unlawfully confiscating documents.
Chanchai Pheamphon, Thammakaset’s owner, was mandated by Thailand’s Supreme Court to compensate the affected workers, but this hasn’t prevented him from launching an impressive 37 complaints against 22 activists seeking justice for the case since 2016. Even though Thammakaset has largely been unsuccessful in these attempts, the burden placed on the defendants cannot be overlooked.
Puttanee Kangkun articulated the sentiments of many when she admitted to the substantial physical and mental toll the case had taken. “I have wasted my resources, time and energy to a case that wasn’t supposed to go to court at the beginning. The stress level was high,” she said, appealing to the Thai government to step up their efforts in prohibiting businesses from abusing judicial processes.
This case has spotlighted the troubling trend of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) in Thailand. Typically weaponized by big corporations, these lawsuits are a common tool to silence critics and intimidate human rights activists. Experts, such as Ngamsuk Ruttanasatain of the Institute of Human Rights and Peace, fear the erosion of free speech in Thailand.
Andrea Giorgetta of the International Federation for Human Rights underlined the urgency of the situation, decrying the lack of reform in Thailand’s defamation laws. He stated, “It is urgent that Thailand immediately decriminalises defamation and brings its laws into line with international standards on freedom of expression.”