No freedom in Thailand without destroying the power of the military and abolishing the monarchy and lèse majesté

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In the wake of yet more outrageous jail sentences given to two young activists under lèse majesté, it is important to continue to condemn this law and demand the unconditional release of all political prisoners. Let us not pretend. The use of the lèse majesté law in Thailand is tied up with the power and influence of the military and the use of the monarchy by the Thai elites. Therefore freedom in Thailand is conditional on destroying the power of the military and abolishing the monarchy and lèse majesté. Tinkering about with one or the other will do nothing to expand the democratic space.

Merely reforming parts of the lèse majesté law, as suggested by Amnesty International, would do nothing to increase freedom of expression. It would not bring Thailand up to international standards of democratic nations which do not have this law. Lèse majesté must be abolished. Outrageously Amnesty International in Thailand has supported the use of this law in the past and now it is being unnecessarily timid.

Lèse majesté cases are about punishing people who dare to criticise the powerful establishment and the status quo. They have little to do with “insulting the monarchy”, a phrase often used by much of the international media.

It is unnecessary to explain to most people that the lèse majesté law represents a gross attack on the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom. The practical impact is that Thailand has struggled for years to achieve a fully developed democracy, a free press and internationally accepted academic standards in universities.

Lèse majesté prisoners are tried in secret courts and denied bail. The royalist judges claim that the offence is “too serious” and “a threat to national security”. Jail terms for lèse majesté are draconian for those who do not admit “guilt”. Today the military junta is also hearing such cases in military courts. Meanwhile state killers like self-appointed Prime Minister General Prayut, and many others, are never punished. The consequence is that there is no functioning justice system in the country.

Thai dictatorships have used the excuse that their opponents were seeking to “overthrow the monarchy” in order to kill unarmed demonstrators in 1976 and 2010.

Lèse majesté is not just about censorship, violence and intimidation by the state. The widespread use of the law and the manic promotion of the monarchy by the military, and others, is a green light for royalist thugs and other non-state actors to commit violence or make threats against citizens. It applies to all those who are merely accused of lèse majesté by anyone, whether or not they are actually charged or found guilty.

Because the military has always had a problem with trying to legitimise its actions by quoting “democracy”, it has relied heavily upon using the monarchy to shore-up its legitimacy. At the same time, the military also needed to promote the monarchy because royalist feelings are never automatic among the Thai population. This process was initiated in the 1960s. Today the military always claim that they are “protecting the monarchy” and that “they are the loyal servants of the King and Queen”. We see the generals in photo poses, supposedly taking orders from royalty. Yet it is the generals who are really in charge of the Palace. The Palace willingly cooperates in this arrangement, gaining much wealth and prestige.

If we are to understand the role of the King in Thai society, we have to understand the double act performed by the military and the monarchy. For ruling classes to achieve hegemony in most modern societies, they require both coercion and legitimacy. The monarchy symbolises the conservative ideology which gives legitimacy to the authoritarian actions of the military and their allies. It is a double act of “power” and “ideological legitimacy”. In this double act the weak-willed King Pumipon has no real power. Throughout his wasted life King Pumipon has never promoted democracy, social peace, harmony, or the well-being of Thai citizens. He has only defended authoritarian power and gross inequality of wealth.

That is why we need to get rid of the monarchy and destroy the power of the military.