The unexpected flight of Chulalongkorn University political scientist Ji Ungpakorn last week to England to escape lese majeste charge has sent shock wave through Thai society. It also serves as a reminder of the heavy price to be paid by not only those believed to be violating the controversial law but by Thai society as a whole as the high price to be paid by Thailand in keeping the law - is getting steeper in the eyes of other democratic nations where freedom of expression is a fundamental right.
When the Financial Times of London interviewed prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on its weekend issue last week, the law was featured high on the list of the few questions posted to Abhisit by the interviewer.
Back in Thailand the pro-Thaksin Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) was instantaneous in distancing itself from Ji who of late has appeared on DAAD stage during a rally. The pro-monarchist ASTV Manager Daily newspaper, the mouthpiece of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) meanwhile had a field day criticising Ji and the red-shirt movement.
Ji left a damning letter criticising the government, the military and the monarchy institution and calling for greater social equality and if needed be, a republic. The letter was so damning that none of the Thai media, mainstream or otherwise, dare publish it in full. Whether one agrees with Ji and how he handled the issue or not, some other Thais charged with lese majeste or in the process of being considered whether to be formally charged or not are now afraid that they would not be granted bail due to fear of more Ji-esque acts. Some social and political activists were furious and harsh on Ji, saying he could have pulled it off simply because he has a dual Thai-British citizenship and is relatively well-off and privileged. Others called him a coward who ran away from fighting against the law as he had managed to gather some signatures in support of a proposed abolition of lese majeste law which carries a maximum imprisonment term of 15 years.
But no matter what one thinks of Ji, he remains a victim of this draconian and controversial law. The law is simply against basic right to freedom of expression and with more people being jailed or prosecuted (there are now at least three behind bars) it will only reiterate the lack of such basic right. When difference in political ideology becomes a sanctioned crime, society is left with a monolithic political view towards the monarchy institution. More praise, adoration and flattery, excessive or not, along with the call for further suppression of differring views are being seen and lauded by many mainstream media as the most "reasonable" thing to do.
Last Friday, Defense Minister permanent secretary Gen Abhichart Penkitta was quoted by ASTV Manager daily calling for harsher punishment while a columnist on the same paper by the name of Varit Limthongkul wrote a day earlier, apparently speaking on behalf of all Thais by stating that: "We gladly and willingly live with "father" the way it is now". Father, in this sense is a reference to His Majesty the King. Recently, a group of MPs, led by a democrat member of parliament, also formed a website which invites any Thai to become their informant or "gestapo" by reporting on the internet of possible violation against lese majeste law.
No matter what Varit may think, the fact that the ICT Ministry is blocking 2,300 websites and eyeing to block thousands more out of their own admission makes it more than self-evident that not-a-negligible number of Thais wanted a more open discussion and even debate about the role of the monarchy institution. The government and the elite who benefit from the status quo can no longer deny this obvious fact. Some wanted to see a more transparent and accountable monarchy institution, others want more equal relationship, to name but a few.
Decades from now, the government and Thai society in general will be judged not just by other democractic societies but by history itself. The choice is simple - more repression, more crackdown and the risk of more counter retaliation and embarrassment in the eyes of the international communities. Ji, now living in Oxford, had already become a self-appointed political dissident only a few days after fleeing, as he gave interviews to western media.