Thongchai Winichakul on anxiety over the succession Part II

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 Part I of the interview, translated by Prachatai English, Thongchai discusses the anxiety over the succession: Whose is this anxiety? And why are they anxious? 

Part II 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. 
 

 

But some people would say that using Article 112 is equivalent to protecting the monarchy whereas you think that it is affecting the monarchy, where observation confirms that it has quite an impact on the institution. However, one curious thing is whether the institution itself realises that the more this law is enforced the more effect it has upon the monarchy and paints the institution as XXXX XXXXXXXXXX?     

Well, I think people have different opinions on this. I mean people can measure this differently. My opinion that [Article 112] is making the monarchy seem worse is just a one mindset that I believe many others also share. I believe many other ultra-royalists see this from a different angle as well because we measure it differently, which is inevitable. People face the consequences of this law differently without any certainty. In the end, this law is not even necessary. Many people have been trying to compromise and campaign for the reform of this law, but fundamentally it is not crucial at all if you think that people are really loyal. The normal defamation law would be sufficient.  

However, the reason why people don’t realise this is that people think differently and calibrate this issue differently; this happens all the time. Therefore, we have to prove who has more vision in this. For me, they [supporters of Article 112] are not very far-sighted. On the question that whether this is related to politics? or whether the institution knows about this? I don’t know. However, I can only provide my thoughts that if they all think about this prudently and if they want the monarchy to stay, I believe that they would think like me that the use of Article 112 does not protect the monarchy, but is gradually destroying it.   

Ordinary people or even the members of the royal family would realise this if they have enough vision. But if you are someone who is ultra-royalist or a member of the royalty, who are afraid that they will lose their privileges until that they do not foresee this, then they will eventually face their own karma. Article 112 will be self destructive. In fact many people told me that I don’t have to warn them about this. But I say this as an ordinary person who is concerned about the nation. I don’t think whether it’s positive or negative. I think that if the institution is a part of Thai society and people want to preserve it then they must think further. I don’t know if most ultra-royalists realise this or not, but I can’t answer for them. However, if they are more logical, I think they would see that Article 112 is actually harming the institution.       

Another point that I have been thinking for a while without being able to prove it is that some ultra-royalists and the members of the monarchy themselves might not in fact think of Article 112 as a measure to preserve the institution in the long run at all. I have been thinking whether is it possible that they are not considering this at all, but think that Article 112 is only for seeking immediate interests. This does not mean that they don’t care of course, but they might think that everything is certain and there will be no problem in the future and only think about the apparent problems. They might think that nothing will change. Therefore, my opinion on this is not logical for them or out of the question for them because for them everything is stable they only have to handle those who are threatening the current system.

But with the status quo of the monarchy of Thailand, which has been repeatedly cited by national security agencies like the Army and even many governments as connected to national security, so criticism and questioning allegedly damage national security. Do you think that this justification for having Article 112 is sufficient?

This has been a kind of national security concern in a military state since five or six decades ago, which I absolutely disagree. I simply disagree because the monarchy should be about culture, to make people love and respect, not about national security. This would be more viable. The moment you connect this to national security matters, which is untouchable, then it will be like what I said earlier, this will be self-destructive. The fear about national security usually leads to measures that destroy national security itself.     

For example, in the past, there was a communist phobia and as this fear increased it resulted in crackdowns on villagers who had different ideas and even on the poor who experienced hardship and went to rallies. At the end, the National Security Council, the Army, and laws related to national security were themselves stirring up more insecurity. When it comes to this issue, it’s no different. Worrying about the monarchy to the point that conversations and criticisms or minor opinions are viewed as threats to national security actually creates insecurity in itself. This insecurity does not arise from those who constructively criticise and call for reforms.  

But the fact that some resist these changes is the problem, so people who were trying to talk ended up getting arrested. These measures cause even more insecurity. There are many other cases of this. The fact that national security agencies here think of security like in an old-fashioned military state is the mechanism which itself creates insecurity. I used to say ironically to many academics ten years ago that if I was asked who is the greatest threat to national security, my answer would be the Army and the National Security Council because they have produced insecurity most often.

Many people might wonder that in the transition of one reign to another, it is not very likely that they have the right to say which specific member of the royalty would be the next heir, is it? Is there any law which stipulates that people can’t say, nominate, or expect who comes and goes. Are there any rights that people have in relation to the succession?

According to what I understand, in other countries there is none. To put it simpler, other countries don’t have this because it does not relate to them. On the contrary, in other countries, parliament can manage this, but in most cases it is left to the customs of the palace itself as long as the monarchy is not involved. They have to seek for approval from parliament not to create a problem. However, at the same time mostly if it is not related to politics then the coronation will be according to the palace custom, which will then be approved. This means that at the end people have the authority to approve the head of state through their representatives, but mostly there is no problem in this. It just a matter of rubber stamping it and the palace manages this themselves. As I said earlier, people have a bit of a say in this, but not much. On one side, they have the right to voice their opinions, but mostly they expect the procedures of the palace and the approval of the parliament.

In Thailand, however, it is in reverse because people can’t talk about this, partially because of the state. If the state does not have concerns about the loyalty people have towards the monarchy and is confident that the institution is not related to politics and economics and the effects caused by this involvement, then just leave this to the palace customs. There is no need to be afraid whether the parliament would approve this or not for no one wants to be involved in this and people will be happy with this privilege if it leads to no problems and repercussions.    

But in fact, they are afraid because they are not very confident. That’s why they have to create various conditions, such as regents and privy councils and little words in the constitution whether the parliament needs to approve or simply acknowledge the reign to the point that it creates problems. The root of the problem is the same. First, are they sure that the loyalty people have is not forced upon them? Secondly, are they sure that the institution is not related to politics?  

In the succession, there are conflict among the royalists regarding the different levels of popularity and loyalties toward the royal family members How do you see this conflict?  

Well many people have been worrying about this, including me. It shouldn’t have happened. We were trying to solve this early on a decade ago pointing out that people should be allowed to talk openly about the monarchy, at the same time making sure that the institution, members of the royal family, and the ultra-royalists, who like to claim that they are connected with the monarchy, are not involved in politics. If this were the case then whatever people say would have no effect on the institution and this sort of situation wouldn’t have occurred in the first place. Many people are worrying about this question, including me, but I’m not sure at all that it can be avoided. And this does not happen because of people who criticize the monarchy, but it happens because of those ultra-royalists who like to honjao.

Do you think this problem can be solved if it is brought up by parliament?

I’m not sure if it is too late or not because I don’t know the practicability of this. What procedure would you use? This is beyond my knowledge, but principally political involvement of the monarchy themselves and honjao should not exist. Therefore, there would be no interests at stake. There would be no struggle for the throne because it can be anyone. In the U.K. people always criticise Prince Charles who is the heir to the throne, but as long as he is the heir, then he will take the throne despite the criticisms against him, because people will respect him honestly not as semi-divine, but as a human being.
 
If that’s the case then we just have to observe if the transition is going to be calm or not, but one thing that I would like to hear your opinion on is that given the changing political situation, the world situation, and the way Thai people think, more questions about the monarchy have been raised. How should the monarchy adapt to this situation?
 
I think those illogical ultra-royalists have gradually destroyed themselves to the point that it perhaps reaches the point of no return. This means that we have arrived at a point where the conflict and divided loyalty apply to xxx xxxxxx xx xxx xxxxx xxxxxx, which will eventually cause damage to society. This is nearly impossible to avoid at this time because it cannot be simply solved in a limited time. I think the formation of this conflict, which started from selectively supporting certain members of the monarchy XX XXXX XXX XXXXXX, has already got out of hand and it’s not at all easy to fix.     

For example, among the powerful elite in the army or out of the army some people have interests at stake, similar to the Thai proverb ‘having something to bet on’ (มีอะไรเป็นเดิมพัน). It means they will be affected by the transition.. I’m not talking about the ordinary people at all, but among the elite, their interests will be affected by these changes. This has been happening for a while now and it continues regardless of warnings and attempts to solve it.  

They themselves are the ones who destroy the stability of the monarchy; they in fact are the people who deserve to be charged under Article 112 more than anyone else. People who honjao are those responsible for the damage that they themselves have done. So I don’t know the structural solution to this problem. I can only say that the way out of this in principle is to stop creating the culture of hyper-royalism. Honjao is the activity makes the admiration for the monarchy beyond the point that it is logical.

My feeling tells me that it is too late, but if those people are smart enough, hopefully it is not too late to more or less fix this. I used the word ‘those’ because I think it is not my duty and I won’t be messing with this. Do it to stop destroying themselves. To be frank, I’m not personally worried and I don’t care what will happen to those ultra-royalists, but I am only worry about the effects that fall on people, it should not happen.