As King Bhumibol is aging, it is undeniable that anxiety over the succession looms among Thais. ‘What will happen after this?’ seems hard to predict. The anxiety comes from uncertainty about the future of the country, but under the lèse majesté law or Article 112, this anxiety is not discussed. Some say that the coup d’état took place to ensure stability during the transition. Meanwhile, under the junta regime, Thailand is now seeing the highest number of lèse majesté cases ever.
No one is better placed to give frank views about this than people who live outside Thailand, where they are less restrained by the draconian lèse majesté law.
Jom Petpradab, a veteran TV journalist who now lives in self-exile in the US, interviewed Thongchai Winichakul, the renowned Thai historian, who is Professor of Southeast Asian History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
In this part of the interview, translated by Prachatai English, Thongchai discusses the anxiety over the succession: Whose is this anxiety? And why are they anxious?
of interview covers the lèse majesté law and how Thais, especially the royalists, can manage to overcome this crisis.
Note to readers:
1 To avoid inaccuracy and the risk of unintentional violation of the lèse majesté law, Prachatai has decided not to translate the Thai term honjao (โหนเจ้า). This phase literally means 'cling to the monarchy'. In the recent Thai political conflict, honjao is used to refer to those in pro-establishment political groups who legitimize their position and actions by claiming that they are protecting the monarchy, though without any overt approval or mandate from the monarchy, and by accusing their opponents of trying to overthrow it. Honjao groups, therefore, include people who make claims about the monarchy to benefit themselves, especially to achieve power through unconstitutional or illegal means.
2 Prachatai has censored some parts of the interview, using XXXXX for words, phrases or sentences that carry a high risk of violating the lèse majesté law, while phrases in italics have been slightly paraphrased to avoid this risk.
Thongchai Winichakul (file photo)
Can you take an overview of things that might happen if there is a transition in the reign, the consequences that will happen to Thai society on various points. What is your analysis of this?
I think a lot of people are talking about this either out in the open or in private. It is a thing that we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that it can’t happen because it is possible and utterly natural. We should understand it and consciously manage it like everything else that we tend to talk about. Firstly, before I analyse anything, the question I would like to ask is this: if it is certain that the monarchy and the king himself is undoubtedly revered and respected by people throughout the country, genuinely respected, and if loyalty is assured, then I don’t see what the problem should be. It would be a normal change, wouldn’t it? Although there will naturally be grief and sorrow, it is normal and very understandable but it should not become a problem of politics or economics or anything else.
For example, do you think there would be a political problem if the monarchy or the king or queen in countries that still have a monarchy, such as the UK, the Netherlands, Norway, or Japan came to the end their reign? As recently happened in the Netherlands and elsewhere, they just abdicate and pass the throne to the heir. There is no problem whatsoever, regardless of how much the citizens love them.
Therefore, I think that the people who are worried about this and those who are concerned that there will be a threat to national security and a crisis are in fact not really certain of the people’s loyalty. Aren’t you certain that people are incessantly loyal towards the monarchy? If they were certain, there would be nothing to worry about at all. This is my first answer. If they are sure then when it happens, the new king will take the throne, which is normal, so those who express concern are just those who are unsure.
Secondly, there is another reason for this uncertainty. Among the monarchies and kings in countries I have mentioned, the reason why they persist through time and trouble is because they are not so involved in politics and economics. Therefore, there is no problem, though the sadness is normal and when the next king takes the throne people will normally be jubilant.
However, in Thai politics the reason why some people are afraid is similar to the first point that I mentioned regarding uncertainty about people’s loyalty. The second point is that if you are sure that the XXXXXXXX XXX XXXXXXX XX XX XXXX XXXXXXX XXX XXXXXXX and there are no honjao groups, if you are sure that these things do not exist, then I don’t see that there is anything to be afraid of. The transition will be normal. It will be a big news story of the year, but it will be a matter that society should manage with no problem.
But if a society is frightened about this it is because in fact some people are not sure how loyal other people are and, secondly, they are not sure of XXXXXXXX and honjao groups create chaos out of it.
Therefore, if there is a transition in the reign, they would be afraid and wonder whether they are on the right side or with the right person or not, which is ridiculous because if you are really loyal this thing wouldn’t become a problem at all. This is why when one talks about uncertainty and fear about this transition, it does not happen because of criticism and curiosity, but it’s from those who claim that they are themselves loyal. Secondly, is it true that there are no people who honjao and XXXXXX XXX XXX XXXXXXXX XXXX XXX XXXXXXXX are not involved in politics and economy? If there are none, then there is nothing to be worried about at all. However, the reason that some are afraid is because in the end it differs from the propaganda they use.
Can you analyse why in the past 4-5 years or 10 years, the monarchical institution has come under discussion and been questioned by Thai people more than in your day and in periods before that. What happened to these questions, criticisms, and at the same time the use of Criminal Code Article 112 to stop people from doing this, which is increasing. Why are people talking about the monarchy and questioning the monarchy increasingly now?
Actually, I already wrote about this. If you ask me about this I think it’s not during the last decade but about four decades back. It did not happen all the time of course, there were ups and downs to it. But what I mean is that in the last 4 decades since the 14 October  incident the popularity of the Thai monarchy has surged. The Thai people who are living now have lived their life too short to see this and that they only see that [the popularity of the monarchy] has always been like this, but in fact it just happened in the last four decades. Speaking as a historian, in the past, the Thai people were not as royalist as at present. I’m not saying how the monarchy was of course, but how the Thai people were.
ฺBefore the past four decades, Thai people have treated the monarchy similarly to the way they treated monks. They respected and believed in Buddhism, but they knew how to separate good monks and bad monks and if they knew that certain monks were not well-behaved then they knew how to avoid paying respect to those monks although generally they still paid respect to Buddhism. Thai people in the past always treated the royal family in a similar way; they respect the royal status and the king regardless of their deeds, but the royals who were unbearable they knew how to manage and avoid. In fact, at present, it is the same. Just think, now Thai people love each member at different level, isn’t it true? We know whom we love more and whom we love less and how to pay more or less respect to them accordingly. If you say that this would defame the monarchy then you ask yourself if this is true or not. I think Thai people always do this.
Therefore, in the last four decades, the love for the monarchy has now become ultra-royalism, or the term I coined, ‘hyper-royalism’, more than in any other period in the past. There are many factors to this. Partially I think it’s from an attempt by those honjao, especially political interests. These people want to be powerful without basing their legitimacy on the people, but by the coup d’etat, by connections and nepotism, by falsely claiming that they are closed with the palace so that they gain privilege and to become powerful, then abuse the power and build their networks. Meanwhile, propaganda, or academically speaking an invented customs, beliefs, and invented cultures [about the monarchy] were created.
[The invented cultures] have been done extravagantly in the past four decades to the point that it seems wasteful. The members of the monarchy are living in this world; those who are loyal to them don’t really have to overdo it. As I was growing up in a hyper-royalist environment, the craze for the monarchy began to pick up increasingly and after 14 October in 1973 it got increasingly extravagant until it reached the momentum of the last 15-20 years. At that time I named many of my writings ‘royalist democracy’, which is Honjao Democracy or to be more official, democracy with the monarch as head of state. In reality, it is just a people who honjao for their own political and economic ends. They also promote customs and traditions which are considered honjao while enforcing Article 112 to prevent criticisms and negative remarks against the monarchy, prohibiting even talk about kings in the past, such as what happened to Sulak and many others, which is totally ridiculous and illogical.
I think this sort of honjao environment comes together with a culture of hyper royalism, which developed along with people around now 60 years old, who are the majority. If you add 10-20 years then there are some who are still living, but have become inactive. People around 70 years old, ten years older than me, at that time were living in a period when ultra-royalism was becoming more intense and of course it came hand in hand with the use of Article 112. In reality, if some people really succeed in convincing people to become so loyal, by suppression and propaganda, then there is nothing to worry about, is there?
If they really succeed in creating sincere loyalism, then there is nothing to be afraid of at all, but the reason why they are afraid is because they are not so sure that they can. This is because the honjao and ultra-royalist environment is illogical. It is like a doctrine or faith that when it reaches certain point, people will see that it’s just too illogical. If people are sincerely loyal, there is no need to coerce such a illogical [honjao environment]. This is why the law [lèse majesté] needs to be enforced, which destroys itself day by day. Moreover, the use of the law to prohibit the discussion about the past kings of the past is ironic because the Ministry of Education and the military themselves are criticising kings in the past in a negative way as well. For example, you can perhaps sue them, I think, the Army, and the Ministry of Education should be sued for defaming King Ekathat of the Ayutthaya Kingdom for over ten years. They selectively defame one king and elevate another all the time. Don’t say that this use of Article 112 is to manifest loyalty in a very consistent manner; it’s just a lie.
Continue Part 2 : Thongchai Winichakul on the use of lèse majesté and anxiety