Respect for the monarchy has become a crucial issue in Thai society in light of the human mortality of His Majesty King Bhumibol. Thailand is not unique in having lèse majesté law. Of the 44 countries ruled by monarchy, at least Belarus, Brunei, Egypt, Germany, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Maldives, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Syria, Turkey, Zimbabwe and others all have lèse majesté laws which are applied seldom and judiciously to the most outrageous and intentional cases of insult to heads of state. What makes the Thai situation unique is that our government chooses to enforce these laws in a capricious and Draconian fashion even when criticism or commentary is sensible and respectful.
The King does not expect or demand respect. In fact, it has become something of a Royal tradition for the King grant Royal pardon to those convicted of lèse majesté. The King has even invited criticism. By and large, lèse majesté law is enforced by private citizens against their fellows. Most charges are initiated by private citizens.
This behavior was first classified as a criminal offense (laesa maiestas) against the dignity of the Roman republic in ancient Rome. In time, as the Emperor became identified with the Roman state (the empire never formally became a monarchy), it was essentially applied to offenses against his person. Is this really a tradition of empire we want to continue?
The monarchy is an institution fundamental to Thai society. The King has exercised vast and respected influence over all layers of Thai life and shaped Thailand’s modern history. For nearly all of us, the King of Thailand has earned our respect. We consider him the father of the Thai nation with great fondness. But in all honesty, none of us can know what will happen with the revered King’s death. Will these “traditions” continue to be expected and enforced? Perhaps I can be judged guilty of lèse majesté just for considering this possibility!
When government bureaucrats, police and private citizens charge lèse majesté, what they are doing is presuming to speak for the monarch. This is a basic definition of lèse majesté. Thus, they themselves commit the same crime!
It is very much the fashion for Thais to express their loyalty to the King and the Royal family. Prior to the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol’s accession to the throne in 2006 and in recognition of the King’s 80th birthday, a huge number of Thais wore yellow shirts as the King’s birth colour, first on Mondays, the King’s birthday, then every day. In most public offices, employees were required to wear yellow. The entire country was a blinding sea of yellow.
Yellow may have become a bit tired after awhile but Thais still wore it in order to fit in. When the King wore a pink jacket to Siriraj Hospital, many Thais started wearing pink shirts. And when the King’s elder sister, Princess Galyani, died on January 2, 2008, a 100-day period of mourning was announced and all these employees began to wear the required black. Birds of a feather flock together!
Like most Thais, I personally thrill to hear the Royal anthem, particularly in the cinema and, for me, it still feels special to stand in respect. Whether I stop what I am doing or not, the Royal anthem calls the King to mind. But yellow was never really my colour.
My nine-year old daughter points out that we don’t stand in respect or stop what we are doing in our homes when the Royal anthem is played on radio and television twice a day. The reason Thais stop and stand in public places is to show solidarity with fellow Thais, to fit in.
So it is incredible, almost unbelievable, that any Thai would fail to show respect in this way. We must be grateful to anticoup activist Chotisak Onsoong and his friend, Chutima Penpak, for bringing this issue to public attention at great personal risk and sacrifice. Remaining seated must be properly characterised as an act of protest against government not the King. It serves to wake us all from a slavish mentality of being followers not leaders. It demonstrates that even one person can effect social change.
Certainly, lèse majesté law has been used by bureaucrats to silence political opposition and dissent through Thai history. Respected Royalist academic, Sulak Srivaraksa, has been charged three times, first in 1986 and most recently in 2006, for his writings. Thanapol Eawsakul, editor of Thai-language Same Sky magazine was charged in 2006 for his publication of writing deemed lèse majesté and his website deleted. Sulak’s 2006 charges stem from translating and quoting the Same Sky article in his journal in English, Seeds of Peace.
Immigration police are lying in wait with lèse majesté charges against American journalist Paul Handley for authoring The King Never Smiles (2007). Chulalongkorn University’s Giles Ji Ungphakorn has found his most recent book, A Coup for the Rich (2007) banned from sale principally because he had the temerity to cite Handley’s book as a reference.
In 2001, two journalists from Far Eastern Economic Review, Shawn W. Crispin and Rodney Tasker, were accused and FEER banned from Thailand until its editor presented a letter of apology. The radio programme “World Morning”, a daily political talk show which had been broadcasting for more than 20 years, was taken off the air after its host read passage from the FEER article.
Another spurious lèse majesté charge was laid by a police colonel against BBC reporter and FCCT executive committee member Jonathan Head for his entirely benign comments while moderating a panel at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in December 2007 on ”Coup, Capital and Crown”. A Prime Minister’s Office minister, Jakrapob Penkair, one of the FCCT panellists, was also accused for his comments.
Former PM Thaksin was charged with lèse majesté by his political nemesis, Manager CEO Sondhi Limthongkul in the Thai political crisis of 2006. Then Sondhi was similarly charged by Thaksin.
And one of the two English-language daily newspapers in Thailand, The Nation, has been asked by the police to not only curtail its reportage of lèse majesté issues and criminal cases. The police further requested The Nation’s cooperation to remove all articles on the issue from its online archive. These are articles which have already appeared in the printed daily edition where obviously they cannot be removed. That The Nation is even considering facilitating this speaks volumes of the climate of pervasive censorship over lèse majesté in Thailand. The Nation has already refused to publish a further article, “The Incident of Chotisak Onsoong” <http://www.prachatai.com/english/news.php?id=610> on this issue and threatened its reporter, Pravit Rojanaphruk, with censure.
Even fictional depictions of the book, Anna and the King of Siam (1946), based on the diaries of British governess to the Thai Royal court, in book, musical stageplay (“The King and I” (1951) and film “The King and I”  and “Anna and the King” (1999) versions have been banned in Thailand for lèse majesté. All these are based on depictions of the Thai court of King Mongkut, Rama IV, in the 1860s!
Doesn’t this sound to you like things have gotten way out of hand? In fact, the lèse majesté laws are obviously in conflict with the principles of both the 1997 and 2007 Thai Constitutions which guarantee freedom of expression and encourage diversity of viewpoints.
In fact, there is no “lèse majesté law” per se. Lèse majesté in Thailand is constructed from a hodgepodge of other laws such as the National Culture Act 1942, which cites the Royal Decree on National Culture, enacted during the dictatorship of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkhram, as well as various pronouncements of the National Culture Council, Prime Minister’s Nationalist Pronouncements and various Royal Decrees on National Culture 1942-1952 containing such legal gems as proper Thai dress and etiquette. This is kind of old, don’t you think? Isn’t it time consider a new way of thinking, in which the public is capable of thinking for themselves?
It was also a matter of serious discussion at the 10th Thai Studies Conference at Thammasat University in January 2008 whether it was even legal to be a Thai Republican in light of lèse majesté law. Are we to be criminals for proposing a Republican evolution of Constitutional monarchy? This was the first such academic conference in 30 years to consider aspects of the Thai monarchy.
All kinds of actions have been judged lèse majesté. A Frenchman, who in 1995 allegedly committed lèse majesté by making a derogatory remark about a Thai princess while on board a Thai Airways flight in international airspace was taken into custody upon landing in Bangkok and charged with offending the monarchy; He was detained for two weeks, released on bail, and acquitted after writing a letter of apology to the king. In 2006, a former American Peace Corps volunteer living in Thailand had a formal accusation of lèse majesté filed against him in the Nakhon Ratchasima; police referred the case to Bangkok but no credible evidence was found so charges were not pursued.
Tearing up a Thai paper banknote or stepping on a Thai coin rolling away have resulted in charges. The charge, conviction, 10-year sentence, Royal pardon after only a month in jail and deportation of Oliver Jufer, a Swiss resident of Chiang Mai who sprayed black paint on public portraits of the King while drunk serves to further denigrate this law.
Jufer’s case has served to inspire some dozen sophomoric anti-Bhumibol videos on the YouTube website which most famously resulted in the government block of YouTube in Thailand for more than seven months in 2007. This has also caused YouTube to enter into a secret agreement with Thai government for geolocational blocking which means any video government finds offensive may be blocked...and we’ll never know.
Fear of breaching respect for the monarchy is so entrenched in Thai society that even the circumstances of the gunshot death of King Bhumibol’s elder brother, King Ananda Mahidol, Rama XIII, in 1946 are not discussed in Thai history classes at schools and universities. Accusations of regicide of Pridi Banomyong, the father of Thai democracy, the author of the 1932 Thai Constitution and founder of Thammasat University led to his permanent exile and the rise to power of Plaek Pibulsongkhram. Three Royal servants were executed for regicide after very unorthodox convictions. And still Thai people will not talk publicly about the king’s death, a seminal historical fact, even in academic circles. How many Thai people consider that the “father of Thai democracy” died in exile?
It is impossible to legislate respect. Respect for others and tolerance for their opinions is what must be encouraged in Thailand if we are to aspire to remain even a fledgling democracy. Free thinkers and those whose conscience is different than one’s own are to be lauded not condemned whether one agrees with them or not.
Arbitrary application of lèse majesté law bears heavily on Thailand’s future. If law can be applied in so cavalier a fashion now, it will continue to be a political bludgeon used by those who curry Royal favour from the Thailand’s next monarch.
Respected Southeast Asian historian, Khon Kaen University academic, Dr. David Streckfuss, thinks the current concept of lèse majesté may have outlived its original purpose and its use has simply devolved into insensibility. “The accusation of the lèse majesté laws sets in motion an inexorable mechanism that compels the police to make charges, prosecutors to prosecute and courts to hand down decisions. These parties failing to act can lead to the lèse majesté charge being levelled at them. Because of the complex role the monarchy plays in society, and because many Thais have become trigger-happy in making the charge, what constitutes normal debate in other constitutional monarchies is increasingly difficult in Thai society...
“...Lèse majesté as it manifests itself in Thai political society represents a serious threat to the freedom of expression as guaranteed in Section 39 of the 1997 constitution. It inevitably becomes a political tool aimed at suppression of criticism...If abolition of the lèse majesté law in Thailand seems unimaginable; if the police and prosecutors feel compelled to pursue charges; if Thai society itself cannot show restraint in making the charge despite the apparent displeasure of the King, then maybe the addition of this single clause may set things right: Amend Section 112 of the Thai penal code by adding the clause that makes the use of the lèse majesté possible "only by order of the King or with his consent."
Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) calls for the immediate repeal of the statutes, regulations, decrees and pronouncements which permit lèse majesté charges. These form a basic implementation of censorship against all Thais.
Ultimately, we all have to decide what sort of society we want to live in and want our children to grow into. Do we want a society of thinking, tolerant, respectful people or a nation of sheep?
I’ve signed Khun Chotisak’s petition. If you really believe Thai means free, so must you.