Giles Ji Ungpakorn
In recent days the use of the draconian lèse majesté law in Thailand has reached absurd and vicious proportions. It is absurd because a young factory worker has been charged under this law for cracking a joke on social media about the king’s dog. It is vicious because these cases attract heavy prison sentences and, since the second military coup in 2014, they are judged in military courts with little transparency or justice.
The number of lèse majesté cases has increased dramatically under the present junta. People are in jail for expressing view through the print and social media. One man was charged for writing graffiti on a toilet wall. The junta have threatened all those who merely press the “like” button in Facebook after reading an oppositional view. At the same time extreme royalists, including a famous Buddhist monk, have been protesting against the U.S. ambassador who merely indicated that he was concerned about the use of lèse majesté. One group of Monarchy Fundamentalists even tried, unsuccessfully, to get the police to arrest the ambassador himself for lèse majesté. Such is the stupidity of those who worship the king.
Ironically, the case of the king’s dog raises the status of the king’s favourite street dog to that of members of the royal family. But dogs are viewed as “lowly” animals in Thai society. In fact a constant stream of comments on social media poke fun at royalists who prostrate themselves on the ground in front of the king and his dog. Significant sections of the population are becoming increasingly fed up with the monarchy and the military dictatorship. One wonders whether it might be cheaper and less bothersome to just appoint a dog as the next monarch. It could bark and wag its tail in approval of everything the junta does. And it would only need to be fed with scraps of food. The generals could then move in and live in the palace.
Mainstream accounts of Thai society and politics always include the cliché that “the king is loved and respected by all Thais”. This may have had some truth at certain periods in history, yet it is a mechanical static view that overlooks the constant changes in public opinion since 1932 and the severe repression and manic propaganda associated with the ideology of the monarchy.
Previous democratically elected governments in Thailand were not opposed to the use of lèse majesté either. In 2010, the head of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) under the Pua Thai government announced that people could be charged with lèse majesté for merely using “body language”, like clapping or smiling, while someone else makes a speech. In the case of that government it was aware that the military and conservative elites were just waiting for a chance to engineer regime change, which they later did. But that just shows how cowardly Taksin’s cronies really were. It shows that they were never committed to full freedom and democracy.
The reason why the military are so extreme in their royalism is that it is the military who invented the monarchy in its present form during the Cold War and it is they, along with the conservative elites, who have controlled and used the timid king to their own ends for most of his life. Given that today political legitimacy in the eyes of most ordinary citizens is conditional on democracy, the military can only seek legitimacy to intervene in politics by continuing to promote the monarchy and by claiming to be protecting the king.
The manic use of lèse majesté has little to do with unease about the crown prince becoming king in the future. This is because many red shirts mistakenly support him, deluding themselves that he will push for a liberalisation of the monarchy. Yet the vast majority of lèse majesté victims are close to the red shirts. The manic use of this law is really about attempts by the military to prolong its dictatorial power. We can see this by the fact that the case of the factory worker charged with “insulting” the king’s dog is closely tied up with attempts to jail him for exposing military corruption.
Those who are for maintaining lèse majesté in Thailand can only hold up the limp excuse that “Thailand is different”. But Thailand is unfortunately not unique. Brutal dictatorships exist all over the world.
For those who merely advocate reforming lèse majesté, their excuse is that they believe that they stand a better chance of convincing the corrupt and brutal generals, politicians and top civil servants to accept some minor changes if they don’t “go too far”. But that is like asking a gang of robbers not to “rob too much”.
The lèse majesté law cannot be reformed into a democratic law any more than a military dictatorship can be reformed or amended into a “democratic military dictatorship”. The lèse majesté law is fundamentally against the freedom of expression and democracy. It cannot be reformed. It has to be abolished. Without destroying the power of the military, via the struggle of a mass movement for democracy, this will not happen.
No one should face charges, be punished or be in jail or in exile for speaking their mind about Thai political institutions. This is the line that must be drawn in the sand to defend freedom of speech and build Democracy in Thailand.
BREAKING NEWS!! 27th December 2015
Succession crisis as King’s favourite dog dies!! Thailand was plunged into a royal succession crisis today as the King’s nominated successor, his dog, died at Hua Hin today. Not long ago the dog was raised to royal family status when a young factory worker was charged with lese majeste for making a joke about the royal dog. But Tong Daeng, the Crown Canine couldn’t take the pace of possible kinghood and died of a heart attack.
DEAD ROYAL MUT GETS STATUE: