Is our debate over freedom forever in conflict with Thai culture?

The recent 11-year sentence against Somyot Prueksakasemsuk relating to lèse majesté and Thailand’s defamation laws has, once again, brought into focus questions that seek to fairly examine the current status of human rights and freedom of expression within Thailand. 

 
Moreover, with arguments referencing the “implication” of what was or what was not said being made explicit within the verdict of this case, a significant precedent has now been set, which will have a profound effect upon many future court decisions. 
 
Such a scenario may not be particularly new to those who closely follow such matters within Thailand, but nevertheless, what may be most problematic is the cementing of a societal context in which it becomes less and less possible to constructively engage with what many Thai people consider to be sensitive issues, and where certain topics are therefore, considered to be off-limits. 
 
This is all taking place within a society that wants, of course, to be able to make the case to both itself and to the wider world, that it is becoming freer and more democratic. So how then will Thailand respond to this growing societal paradox, without acting to encourage further fragmentation and schism?   
 
As soon as the verdict was announced, across-the-board criticisms emerged out of the international community, and this was in clear contrast to the response from Thai human rights institutions, which were generally rather muted in terms of their own public pronouncements. 
 
Incredibly, despite the attention drawn to this latest case, no official statement concerning this verdict has yet been released by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand. Inevitably therefore, for as long as there remains such a vacuum within the Thai human rights arena, individuals will necessarily be left to draw their own conclusions from such a notable silence.
 
In particular, a number of leading international institutions highlighted the problem of placing a priority on defending a sense of national pride as this relates to culture and tradition, over that of human rights, which are internationally recognised, and to which Thailand is a signatory. 
 
This aspect to the case was picked up by a number of Thai defenders of the court decision, who then appealed to arguments implicitly advocating in favour of a sense of Thai exceptionalism, which would in their view, act to justify such a court decision. 
 
The official response from the European Union Heads of Mission in Thailand made the case: “The verdict seriously undermines the right to freedom of expression and press freedom. At the same time, it affects Thailand’s image as a free and democratic society...” 
 
Whilst Navanethem Pillay, a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights argued: “The conviction and extremely harsh sentencing of Somyot sends the wrong signals on freedom of expression in Thailand. The court's decision is the latest indication of a disturbing trend in which lèse majesté charges are used for political purposes.”
 
In response to the EU, an anonymous message was sent out on Facebook that went on to be shared by a large number of Thai royalists’ online social networks. In the highly politicised context of the ongoing Red-Yellow paradigm, politicking remains a key dynamic of course, in almost any social-political equation.
 
Nevertheless, it read: “Preserving our beloved Monarchy is the right of the Thai people - not the business of the EU... we have our own distinct culture, much of which has evolved around our beloved monarchy…This may be difficult for Europeans to understand: It is our long-held tradition to pay the utmost respect to our King, with a type of respect that is unique to Asian cultures.”
 
However, this attempt to conflate the issue of human rights with Thai cultural identity necessarily implies that within Thailand, an individual’s rights are respected only when they do not conflict with the cultural imperative, and that they are therefore, to be considered to be of only relative importance, and not something absolute.
 
In this regard, this Facebook message is apparently correct in its assertions, as its rationale appears to be rather in line with this latest court decision. This does not however, mean that it must at all follow that such a rationale is a viable approach to resolving such a given situation. 
 
Implying as it does, that those who for what ever reason are not identified with a particular cultural paradigm would do better to stay well out of the way, smacks of intolerance towards the outsider, and is not indicative of a constructive debate. 
 
Moreover, the EU statement might have been made by any dispassionate observer of the situation, and it evidently did not appeal to a sense of wanting to in any way diminish Thai culture. Therefore, it is unfortunate whenever there is an appeal to a sense of indignation that non-Thais are unduly interfering in Thai domestic affairs. 
 
But the thing to remember here, is that it is not so easy to convincingly dismiss the key point that was actually made by the EU. Moreover, such a critique remains just as valid, whether or not it happened to have been made by a Thai or non-Thai observer of the Somyot case.
 
To some extent, Thai NGOs have been outspoken in openly challenging the court’s decision. Yet for many, these NGOs are considered to be so purely aligned to the aspirations of the Red Shirt movement, that their arguments are almost entirely disregarded by those who may happen to disagree with their politics. 
 
Despite the reasoning of many who continue to perceive the question of freedom of expression as contingent on how it relates to the political Red-Yellow paradigm, this limited perspective only acts to relegate the question of human rights to the level of political gamesmanship.
 
That Somyot was an editor of a Red Shirt publication means that for many Thais, they cannot see through to the essential importance of the principle of rights, which must be applied equally to all under the law, regardless of political affiliation. It is this state of moral confusion that ultimately acts to undermine all of our intrinsic rights. 
 
If we believe in rights at all, then fundamental human rights cannot be regarded as something negotiable, to be applied as and when it suits any one particular interest group, when it finds itself in the fortuitous position of power.
 
Historically, and around the world, where significant progress has been made in relation to these essential questions, it is precisely because human rights have been held up as an issue of such fundamental importance, that it must transcend politics and societal variances. So, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” 
 
This may be a perspective that all Thais would do well to consider, especially when discussing freedom of expression in the context of the Thai cultural heritage. As the world changes over time, we should now more than ever before, fully consider the freedoms that we have never had, in order to create for ourselves a democratic spirit favourable to a constructive national debate, and most importantly perhaps, the necessary commitment to freedom of expression for all. 
 
 
Titipol Phakdeewanich is a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University.

Comments

The supposition of a

The supposition of a monolithic Thai society is in error. Perhaps monolithic as far as widespread compliance goes, but in terms of attitudes suddenly setting in, that ain't going to happen easily and it's not because of some nature of Thai society, but rather those who dictate. It's not Thai culture, but how Thai culture is being dictated and inculcated.

As a Thai who was born and

As a Thai who was born and raised in Thailand, I have to say there is actually a conflict between Thai culture and freedom beyond what is dictated and inculcated. While recent past dictatorships may have been responsible for much of the apparent intolerance you see in many Thai people today, our "Thainess" is not limited to that. Take, for example, religion. Having grown up a Buddhist, I know that a lot of things relating to Buddhism are simply taken for granted and not up for debate, despite the fact that there is a doctrine in Buddhism that tells you not to believe things without question, which most Thai people unquestionably believe. There is no public debate about removing mandatory prayers in public schools. High school students in the Thai system are required to take Buddhism classes regardless of their faith or lack thereof. Fair criticisms of Buddhism are always viewed unfavorably.

The Thai culture of deference to authority is not limited to the institutions displayed in the Thai flag. Even in grade schools, children are dictated by their teachers. In some schools, there is this dehumanizing practice of crawling up to the teacher on one's knees in front of the classroom. When I grew up, corporal punishment was the norm. Did I mention seniority and hazing among students as well?

Perhaps the most obvious indicator of our deference to authority is our beautiful Thai "Wai." We "Wai" someone more powerful to acknowledge their superiority. (There are other ways to show love and respect.) We "wai" our parents, our teachers, our bosses, high-ranking government officials, royal family members, and Buddhist monks. To me, my "Wai" was always accompanied with a sense of humility and submission, and it never felt right.

Let's not forget that Thailand used to have a caste system, from which we inherit a little more than necessary. We discourage open conversations about the monarchy not simply because the ruling elites dictated it, although they are very much responsible for the current Article 112 outrage. We just don't have a history of tolerance and freedom in this country in the first place.

Thank you for your

Thank you for your observations, especially regarding the "wai". As a westerner I have always felt a bit uncomfortable with it in ways I never was when faced with the similar "namaste" greeting in India.

In a seminar on Thai culture organised by a prominent public body we were addressed on this issue by a high ranking Thai. We were told that "lowly" Thai folk like supermarket checkout staff do not need any acknowledgement when they wai you as you leave - it's just an expression of thanks.

My wife is Thai and has always said that when anyone wais you you should wai back out of politeness. I follow this maxim in the supermarket and elsewhere.

It is instructive to observe how Thais interact with each other in public. Have you ever heard a passenger thank the bus conductor on receiving their ticket and change, for instance? How many times have you seen food served to diners who treat the waiter as if they didn't exist?

Good observation, Sam. I

Good observation, Sam. I don't know how long you've been in Thailand and how proficient you are with the language, but I'll bet anything that you don't know half or more likely a tenth of the words used as first, second and third person pronouns in Thai, each reserved for certain people and situations. Just another one of those Thai 'uniquenesses' that many Thais are proud of and unaware that they are the very reasons why they are not further up in the international societal ranking.

Frank is spot on - Thai

Frank is spot on - Thai culture is no more monothilic or operating outside of history than anywhere else.

The real question is how will the hegemonic crisis enveloping the established dominant groups be played out? There is no doubt there is a crisis - the old certainties of what is "Thai" are collapsing, new voices (the Red Shirts) have emerged placing the masses as an agent of change and the old deferences are being critiqued if not destroyed completely.

This begs the next and most important question - where is Thai culture heading? This is should be the real grounds for struggle not trying to negotiate with a fading and dying ideology.

Sarit's Thailand, a construction of ultra-royalism, backed by US military power and the maniacs in the Thai Army, something which the amaart have tried so desperately to keep in place via every tool in the book is the past. It's agents are just trying to hold back the future which is as unlikely as trying to hold back the sea.

“Preserving our beloved

“Preserving our beloved Monarchy is the right of the Thai people - not the business of the EU... we have our own distinct culture, much of which has evolved around our beloved monarchy…This may be difficult for Europeans to understand: It is our long-held tradition to pay the utmost respect to our King, with a type of respect that is unique to Asian cultures.”

The 'we' and the 'our' refer to the minority oligarchs. They are fighting tooth and nail to protect their privilege and domination of Thailand. The only ones who (try to) take them seriously are themselves.

PPT had a summary of an article written from a perspective very similar to that of the facebook oligarch's.

No rational person or group has called for abolishing laws which protect His Majesty and the royal family.

Reminds of other such assertions

There can be no doubt that talk in the West of 'the forced commitment to psychiatric hospitals' of certain 'dissident' representatives of the intelligentsia is nothing other than a component part of the anti-Soviet propaganda campaign that certain circles are trying to stir up in pursuit of highly improper political aims.

The 'elite' minority is truly becoming desperate. So it seems to me at any rate.

The current harsh penalties

The current harsh penalties for LM are not part of any longstanding Thai cultural tradition. They were introduced by General Sarit for specific political purposes. They were much less harsh in the time of King Chulalongkorn.

The current harsh penalties

The current harsh penalties for LM are not part of any longstanding Thai cultural tradition. They were introduced by General Sarit for specific political purposes. They were much less harsh in the time of King Chulalongkorn.