Thailand and Lèse Majesté
Image Credit: Government of Thailand

Thailand and Lèse Majesté

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I should probably start with a little background. I lived in Thailand in 2008 when I was volunteering with an NGO, and I loved it there: the people, the culture, the food. I hope to go back one day.

Yet, although nowhere is perfect, I feel particularly wary about criticizing a certain aspect of this country, namely the monarchy.

Despite being a constitutional monarchy since 1932, the Thai Royal Family still holds a prominent place in the country’s political affairs. Of course most of the time, the monarchy is largely symbolic. But it has still often intervened during periods of political instability – such as the country’s myriad military coups – to provide a mediating voice aimed at helping the nation’s actors resolve their differences.

I’ve argued in the past that the monarchy’s influence was greatly diminished during the “Red Shirt” street protests that rocked the country in 2010 and which claimed more than 100 lives. The King, perhaps weakened by old age, appeared to have little to say on the issue, and when he did he seemed to be largely ignored.

In a sense, this is curious. The King is beloved by virtually all of his subjects due to his image of benevolence and generosity. However, when I lived in Thailand, the resident director of the organization I was working for warned me and the other volunteers never to say anything negative about the monarchy, because Thailand hands out some of the world’s harshest prison sentences for violating lèse majesté laws. Indeed, we were warned that if paper money was ever blown out of our hands, that we shouldn’t step on it to stop it floating away as Thai baht bills have a picture of the King on the front, and anyone stepping on his image risks a jail term for doing so.

These lèse majesté laws returned to international attention this year with two high-profile cases. In May, a Thai-American citizen was arrested after he translated parts of a banned biography of the King and posted them on the internet. The man was sentenced to 30 months in prison, a sentence that earned a sharp rebuke from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

Then, in November, a 61-year-old man was given 20 years for a series of controversial text messages that he had sent the previous year. Ampon Tangnoppakul, also known as “Akong” (Thai for Grandpa), became the center of an online campaign organized by Thai journalists and human rights advocates to pressure the monarchy to pardon the elderly and sick grandfather.

King Bhumibol, for his part, has actually called for more criticism, and usually does issue clemency for law violators; it’s important to note that the Thai government, not the monarchy, is responsible for bringing charges of lèse majesté against individuals.

With the abolition of absolute monarchies, lèse majesté laws would seem to fall under the description “archaic.” However, politicians in Thailand looking to gain public favor by appealing to the sanctity of the monarch have politicized the issue to such a degree that even elderly and infirm citizens find themselves at risk of jail. It’s one aspect of the country that it is difficult to embrace.

Comments
5
Truth out
December 19, 2011 at 14:31

Another good book to get a balance is the KING never smiles

Tim I agree there are many nice people in the country and
maybe just as many who abuse the laws with regards to the monarchy.

Yes the Monarchy during the Red shirt days were diminished because of of the
pro yellow shirt government. If your to be honest with the readers, you should
look back. In the days of old. Many of the former prime ministers, as well as
military dictators were as or more corrupt than Thaksin.

However, Thaksin became a poster child for corruption. Many former
who were guilty were given amnesty to return home. Thaksin was not.

So the pro Thaksin Thais who loved the King were a little take back
by the slow movement for the King to step in

Then along came wiki – leaks and this showed that Thaksin fell out of favor
beyond corruption. He was too much of a popular man, trying to upset the
power that be. Setting a course of mach speed for Thailand’s progress, which is a no- no without approval from the inner circle.

That circle gave the people more to think about than the monarchy bargained for

Anonymus
December 19, 2011 at 14:21

Tim,
Please excuse yourself May 1992 aka Black May, there were many more than 50 people killed. There are untold hundreds missing to date.

This only came about after many days of the crackdowns by the Thai Military.
the videos by CNN, and the US congress send a letter signed by the members of the then Foreign Relations committee including Benjamin Gilman requesting His Majesty to step in and resolve this matter. This is real history,of the Black May.

No one really knows how much longer the Suchinda regime would have
kept the killing going on.

Tim LaRocco
December 19, 2011 at 12:25

Chris,

Are you familiar with “Black May” the term used to refer to the popular demonstrations in Bangkok in May 1992 which resulted in a violent crackdown by the military? It resulted in over 50 people killed. The King took to the television to broadcast a public appeal for the two fighting factions to stop the bloodshed and come to an agreement. Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, himself the orchestrator of a coup the previous year, resigned as Prime Minister shortly after the King’s announcement.

A great resource of other examples can be found in David van Praagh’s book “Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy” (1996).

As for your question of the monarchy’s symbolic power, the answer is found inherently in the definition of a constitutional monarchy: the head of the government is the Prime Minister, not the King.

Chris
December 18, 2011 at 17:56

During which coups has the monarchy intervened as a mediating voice?

In which constitutions before 1997 (with the exception of 1932) has the monarchy only held symbolic power?

William
December 17, 2011 at 19:58

Hardly unique, though. Lèse-majesté punishments / laws exist in one form or another in at least North Korea, China, and Singapore. Probably plenty more places. The arrogance of power permeates widely.

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