Accusing America’s single-most important ally in Southeast Asia of unwarranted interference in the affairs of the United States may sound a bit strong. And especially so in this age of official apologies and expressions of regret at offending those with whom we Americans maintain diplomatic relations. Yet, when an ally cites as illegal, under both its civil and criminal codes, any offensive expressions of opinion and behavior of foreign nationals in their own nations, the question must be asked, in addition to the larger issue of international criminal wrongdoing, is our ally not trespassing onto the territory of the United States with such claims and investigations, let alone prosecutions?
Ever since Thailand ostensibly became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the kingdom has shredded seventeen constitutions. Each subsequent charter was crafted by interim authorities claiming legitimacy in their professed mission to restore good governance but at the same time, each renewal was made with cooperation from like-minded political sectors.
The latest charter shred was in 2007 after the September 2006 military coup. Like other coups in the past, this one involved coup-makers pardoning themselves for their actions. Perhaps the three most important questions to ask as a result of all these constitutions and coups are:
1. Why have sociopolitical conditions remained seemingly unchanged since 1932?
2. Why is there still so much class division and latent political instability?
3. What is the key to effecting lasting and just change in the kingdom?
Answers may be found in the following observations.
1. Sociopolitical conditions in Thailand have remained relatively intact since-and even before-1932 because of a combination of nationalism and human pride in traditional Thai/Siamese culture. Recognizing that there has been a huge undertaking by the state to enshrine such values in the kingdom, nonetheless a more general human spirit also plays a part in the desire to retain most traditions and beliefs whether or not they conform or conflict with modern international standards.
2. Latent political stability or lack thereof, and significant class divisions, are inherited from former state institutions. They are also maintained and encouraged by influential interests, some of whom benefit from such regimentation, and often supported by the general population which believes, and is conditioned to believe, that their support is justified.
3. Needed lasting and just change in the kingdom throughout the sociopolitical spectrum can not come about when dialogue is convoluted, self-interests dominate discussions, compromise is defined by those in control, and where expression is held to be criminal. Obviously, then, whatever kind of change is coming or will come may have to be effected through radical means. Radical does not have to mean, however, violent. It depends on how violent the reaction is to concerted efforts at making changes in the kingdom, and in that light currently the record is not good.
Academics, scholars, activists, professors, social commentators, politicians, the military, and a spirited number of the general public have all expressed strong opinions one way or the other as to what kind of changes are needed in the kingdom, when they should occur, and who should make them. On the other hand, obstacles exist toward progressing to a point where legitimate suggestions can be raised without prompting a barrage of generally groundless denunciations and clamoring for hangings. This is the state of speech in Thailand, and has been for a long, long time. Offensive speech is able to be silenced by those offended and those claiming to be gatekeepers of the offended.
When criminal defamation laws exist per se as they do in Thailand, and are often used to silence internationally recognized as legitimate expressions of opinion, or when even statements of fact and truth whether originated or repeated are themselves cited by the criminal justice system as crimes, there is a valid argument for full public discussion of the laws and just why “the system” per se is unable to adequately practice enforcement so that all citizens are granted a basic minimum amount of protection from abuse and violations of their rights.
As Thailand’s legal “system” currently exists, authorities and vested interests are offended by international clamor of rights violations when criminal defamation cases, including lesè majesté, are revealed. Rather than seriously reflecting on the possible legitimacy of such clamor, and as a result taking internal measures to deal with criminal justice shortcomings and rights abuses, it is deemed more important to pull down the veil of sovereignty and right to safeguard national interests and to make politically-sensitive comments explaining this position to those who do not need, who will not accept groundless defenses, and who remain aghast at the lack of humanity in such explanations.
It is a given that different nations, different cultures, different languages and different climates, and more, will produce unique nations or peoples. Of larger import, however, is the humanity, global, that we are entrusted by our creator with either pursuing or abusing. When our choice is to remain adamant, to dismiss valid argumentation, to prohibit demonstration and expression, to inculcate false and often senseless beliefs, to criminalize both behavior and expression of opinion not just in our own nation but throughout the entire world, as intellectual sentient beings it should not escape us that these practices are inhumane and often illegal. But there are bigger fish to fry. Diplomatic relations must be protected – behind these, of course, is the flow of money and self-benefit that that flow represents. It is, perhaps, the clash between these two ebbs and flows – self-interest and human reaction – that governs the demarcation between stability and lack of stability.
The impact of this clash is monumental, and has not changed much over the millennia that mankind has dominated the earth. Our propensity to cite the old adage about those not studying history are bound to repeat it is itself a slightly kiltered expression reflecting our collective absence of the will to work hand-in-hand with one another for a just world. In such a clash, the role of the military and state national security apparatus is self-explanatory.
The problem of why so much unrest is still continuing, and how it affects international relations, is now identified. But the question remains about what can be done. Can and should Thailand be brought to task for alleged interference into the domestic affairs of the United States? Or does the issue pale in comparison to the amount of money to be lost in trade and military cooperation that stand to be threatened by human rights issues?
This rather expansive issue – what can or should be done about the diplomatic and human rights rift in areas of claimed jurisdiction over expression of opinion - was recently raised with Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center, whose mission in part is “We support the First Amendment and build understanding of its core freedoms through education, information and entertainment. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, and the rights to assemble and to petition the government.” The center’s website is at http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/.
In an on-site reference to the First Amendment, it says, The First Amendment ensures that “if there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein,” as Justice Robert Jackson wrote in the 1943 case.
In a frightening sense Thailand’s has no “fixed star” or absolute protection against unjust censorship of freedom of expression. That its constitution has time and time again been shredded with the assistance of or by the military, the same military that determined the make-up of the subsequent charter, and that the outcome is thus logical to conclude as being less than democratic, is an inescapable reality and one that must be changed.
A US-based First Amendment research center also informed this writer recently, when asked about why US law does not prevent international abuse of American freedoms and the right to exercise those rights that “It would appear that U.S. law has not caught up with this problem. It would take some kind of lawsuit filed in court for it to gain any legal traction, no doubt. And of course diplomatic relations are all mixed up in it.” It’s difficult to resolve in a country where facts and truth are both literally outlawed in favor of protected misrepresentation. www.freedomforum.org posts on its website, for example, a question as to whether libel or slander was actually present with, “Libel and Slander - Was the statement false, or put in a context that makes true statements misleading? You do not have a constitutional right to tell lies that damage or defame the reputation of a person or organization.” In Thailand there is not even a right to tell the truth or publish facts that damage or defame the reputation of a person or organization. The right is allegedly there but in practice exercising it is bottlenecked with loose criminal justice procedures and willing bureaucrats who allow abuse of the law to undermine freedoms and personal right to expression.
Such a lawsuit as just mentioned in the foregoing paragraph may have, in principle, been given a seed of thought in the 2010 Free Speech Act that protects all American persons within the United States from being personally subject to foreign criminal defamation lawsuits as long as those persons remain within the United States. The next step is to reciprocate what Thailand has apparently done – extend US national jurisdiction, this time on behalf of constitutional protections – to all nations of the world which would guarantee that persons within the United States are, and remain, free to express opinions and advocate causes. But a huge task ahead remains in convincing authorities and experts that this problem is a problem that it needs publicity and resolution for the benefit of all who cherish the right to freedom of expression and agree with the need to maintain a minimal standard of human rights protections.