lèse majesté stifles debate and analysis of the crisis

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The recent attempts to charge the red shirt local radio DJ “Kotee” under the lèse majesté law for claiming in a VICE news documentary that a “higher force” was controlling Sutep’s mob, goes to the heart of problems created by lèse majesté. It is my view that Kotee is mistaken in his understanding of the situation, but the use of the draconian lèse majesté law closes down all sensible discussion about the Thai political crisis within Thai society. Anyone trying to argue details about the various ruling class power groups seeking to destroy Thai democracy immediately runs the risk of being charged under lèse majesté. I was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book which opposed the 2006 military coup. The Lawyers Council of Thailand has just taken matters to a new dangerous extreme by accusing the Red Shirt lawyer Robert Amsterdam of lèse majesté for urging reform of the lèse majesté law! This is in the same vein as the ruling by the Constitutional Court that it was “illegal” for an elected parliament to seek to change the constitution and make all senate seats subject to democratic elections.

Open debate and analysis about the political crisis, which involves putting forward theories supported by evidence, in order that others can critique such ideas, is blocked.  As a result people are reduced to discussing rumours and conspiracy theories and making indirect allusions to powerful and absolutist forces which are supposedly controlling Thai society. Whose interests are served by this?

The 2006 military coup against Taksin Shinawat’s elected government was staged by soldiers wearing yellow royalist arm bands. Photos of the generals talking to the monarch were widely publicised. The initial military junta also called itself the “Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy”. There was a crude message in all this. The military has a long history of seeking royalist legitimacy for its destruction of democracy. It is in the military’s interests to stifle any discussion about the appropriateness or truth of these claims to legitimacy. The same can be said for the Yellow Shirts and Sutep’s mob today. Given the grey area covering the roles of the elites, many ordinary people could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking along the same lines as Kotee.

Allusions to unnamed, powerful and absolutist forces which are supposedly controlling Thai society is also beneficial to the conservative elites because it is a message that implies that resistance is pointless. It is also a message that lets the military off the hook. Conversely this also benefits Taksin, Yingluk and Pua Thai because it is such a convenient excuse to hold back on any real change, move towards a grubby compromise with the anti-democrats and calm down the more impatient Red Shirts. This has been the aim of Pua Thai since the election victory of 2011.

Yingluk and Pua Thai’s demands that Kotee be arrested and their continuing support for the lèse majesté law is also useful in countering the conservatives’ ridiculous accusations that Taksin is some kind of “republican”, when in fact he shares the conservatives’ views on the monarchy. Monarchies in Western Europe are useful in supporting the ideology that there is a “natural hierarchy” even in a capitalist democratic society.

Any meaningful democratic reform of Thai society needs to include the removal of the lèse majesté law and the release of political prisoners like Somyot Pruksakasemsuk or Da Torpedo.