Thailand’s newly-appointed national police chief has already announced the country’s new top policing priority: defending the monarchy. Indeed, just a few days into the job and Pol Gen Wichean Potephosree had already made it clear that the police will now adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward those trying to challenge or abuse the monarchy.
But while it’s undeniable that most Thais, including those in the police department, maintain a love and respect for the royal family, Pol Gen Wichean’s well-intended policy toward those who don’t seems a little misdirected. After all, does the perhaps one percent of the population that resents standing for the royal anthem in cinemas really form a credible threat to such a revered institution?
The problem is that this new policing priority could also further complicate the country’s political stalemate. If Pol Gen Wichean is planning on hunting down citizens with republican leanings, then it’s surely going to be necessary to clearly define what an ‘anti-monarchist’ is. But doing so is fraught with difficulties—where will the line be drawn between critical debate and insult? Could a non-conformist be considered a criminal? And will the difficulties in defining who’s an anti-monarchist mean that the police themselves could end up being accused of abusing the monarchy?
Since the outset of the ongoing crisis, various political groups have arbitrarily exploited images and symbols of the monarchy for political gain. In doing so, they openly politicised the royal institution, potentially diminishing its reverence among Thais.
In 2006, The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) launched a months-long campaign to unseat former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, labelling him the enemy of the monarchy. PAD leaders sported yellow T-shirts—the colour associated with Monday, the day of the King’s birth—emblazoned with the slogan, ‘We fight for the King.’ This move kicked off the colour-coded political war between two groups—the battle between the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts that has divided the country.
But the PAD failed to overthrow Thaksin. Instead, the military staged a coup in 2006 purportedly to end the protracted Thai crisis. The military justified its political intervention by yoking together two themes: protecting national security and ensuring the dignity of the royal institution. Now, Pol Gen Wichean is in danger of allowing the old pattern of shaping Thai politics based on binary opposition—between ‘ethical’ forces and an ‘evil’ enemy—to take root.
In the 1990s, a political line was drawn to distinguish between two political camps: one was the thep or angel, and the other the mann, or evil. Some state agencies now seem to be exploiting the monarchy to create a great divide within Thai society, much as the country has experienced in the past. Government and opposition politicians alike are willing to go to any lengths to accuse each other of disloyalty to the royal family simply to strengthen their own positions. This could explain why attempts at reconciliation haven’t been successful so far, and why national unity has been so difficult to attain.
Of course, in many ways, it’s perfectly understandable that state agencies sometimes embark on efforts to re-glorify the monarchy as the epitome of the Thai nation. After all, the King genuinely is the foundation of the nation—the pillar that represents the country’s identity. As then-Prime Minister Thanin Kravixian said in the 1970s, ‘Thais can’t survive without the monarchy because the Thai race is not defined by genetic or geographical race, but by Thainess, a concept that cannot exist separate from the king. Without monarchy, the land and its people would fall into some identity-less perdition of the type communists would bring.’
Such a view is just as relevant today, although it should be added that since Thanin’s time in office, Thai society has become more open (and in some ways democratic) as Thais have become more exposed to a range of new sources of information.
So, if one genuinely believes that there’s a tiny minority of Thais who might be on a mission to disparage the monarchy, then surely the best way of dealing with them would be educating them on the importance of the monarchy to Thai society?
Unfortunately, the police department doesn’t seem to agree. Pol Gen Wichean’s approach instead seems bound to lead to a new wave of lèse-majesté charges against anti-monarchists, and it’s troubling that he has said that he sees this issue in personal terms.
Lèse-majesté charges are already not a rarity—a number of Thaksin’s followers and some members of the Red Shirt movement have been landed with lèse-majesté charges, while thousands of websites challenging establishment interests and deploring the traditional elite have been blocked. Most of these people have been accused of denigrating the monarchy.
This can’t be healthy.
Pol Gen Wichean is an esteemed figure within the police, and many still hope that he’ll be able to steer the force away from politics. During the political crisis earlier this year, some police officers, known as ‘tomato police,’ were criticised for being sympathetic toward the Red Shirts, thus compromising their duty of ensuring security. Pol Gen Wichean now has the chance to consolidate the force’s strengths and create a credible force that all Thais can depend on.
Thailandhas a raft of pressing problems to confront, not least ongoing issues of crime and corruption. Added to these should be rising political violence, extra-judicial killings and conflict in the south of the country. Surely, these are the kinds of priorities Pol Gen Wichean should be talking about?
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.