Thailand’s Emergency: Who Killed the King?

David Streckfuss, a human rights expert on political and cultural history, finds that the heart of the longstanding and ongoing lèse majesté debate rests in the country’s defamation law. This truism concerns not only academics who are constrained from speaking freely but also ordinary citizens.

Truth on Trial in Thailand details a 110-year trajectory of lèse majesté prosecutions, “sedition and treason, the press and cinema, anti-communism, contempt of court”, and libel since 1900. This censorship centres on the legal and cultural concept min phraboromdechanuphap––หมิ่นพระบรมเดชานุภาพ.

Although the genesis of modern censorship in Thailand resulted from public opinion surrounding the 1946 gunshot death of King Ananda, lèse majesté laws laws came to be fully employed “from the late 1950s onward under military dictatorship”…using the banner (till today) of national security. At that time and till the present, some considered, rightly or wrongly, that the King’s younger brother, Bhumibol, was involved in the Ananda’s death.

Thailand’s lèse majesté slide toward dictatorship resulted in Pridi Banomyong, the 1932 revolutionist, author of the first Thai Constitution and widely-revered “father of Thai democracy”, being accused of regicide in the death of King Ananda. Although the official government announcement unambiguously stated the young king’s death was accidental, three Palace servants were executed in 1955 for this crime, nine years after the event, with no intervention or Royal pardon from the crown. Pridi himself died in exile in France; even after his death, his ashes were not allowed to be returned to Thai soil.

In 1973 a Thai expatriate group “claimed the [present] king legitimated a dictatorship which suppressed the people” and accused the king of being a traitor to the nation and its people. A 1983 underground, infamous but widely-distributed book, “Nine Reigns of the Chakri Dynasty” accused all Chakri crowns, including King Bhumibol, of a host of crimes.

More recently in 2008, Chulalongkorn University Giles Ji Ungpakorn became the first Thai academic to be charged with lèse majesté in more than 50 years. His crime was quoting the banned, seminal Bhumibol biography in English, Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles, in referencing his book, A Coup for the Rich.

The long-term effects of reliance upon defamation law have skewed the truth in Thailand and created authoritarian structures which still drive Thai politics, especially the military, belying any appearance of democracy. Defamation law employs a singular exemption—if it can be proven by a defendant that such are “an expression of a sincere opinion”. This book contends that Thai history was suspended in 1958, setting us up for “an endless state of crisis” which continues until today.

Streckfuss quotes historian Antoon de Baets: ’[D]efamation cases and threats to sue in defamation cases have a chilling effect on the historical debate; they are often but barely veiled attempts at censorship.” Nowhere has this proven more true than in Thailand, where inequities in the law provide any citizen may charge any other person for the thinnest expression critical of the country’s monarchy.

This situation has resulted in the current “high degree of self-censorship” [Patrick Jory]. As public conversation regarding the Thai monarchy is increasingly suppressed by fear of spurious prosecution, the debate has resulted in numerous subterfuges to preserve an author’s anonymity. Circumvention by anonymous proxy, IP spoofing, VPN and other means is becoming increasingly common in the daily wars between netizens and their government.

lèse majesté prosecutions have occurred throughout history, equal to treason, blasphemy or heresy, when intrigues made monarchs far less secure than they are today. Rather than leaders, modern constitutional monarchs such as King Bhumibol are seen as unifying symbols or figureheads for the nation. However, in Thailand, the king is also characterised as “Head of State”, implying influence and power.

Certainly, when the sovereign blesses us with his rare advice, no one follows it. King Bhumbibol’s 2005 birthday address made it clear that he encouraged criticism as he was, after all, human. A commoner uttering such a sentiment would surely be found guilty of lèse majesté in Thai courts.

However, the current situation is that government bureaucrats make it their mission to ‘protect the monarchy’ whether the king wants or needs such protection or not. By doing so, they ingratiate themselves with their fellow toadies and make sure no taint of disloyalty might touch them.

These same bureaucrats created the secret “Taskforce 6080” with a secret budget in 2007 a year after Thailand’s military coup d’etat. The taskforce was set up by the Internal Security and Operations Command (ISOC) to counter any public expression that the Palace might be behind the 2006 coup.

It has become obvious to any thoughtful observers of Thai political gymnastics that these efforts have little to do with the present king and everything to do with his successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. Vajiralongkorn has been characterised by the international press as “feared”, “loathed”, “hated” or “distrusted” or even “dissolute” or “corrupt” by many Thais who speak very carefully in private only with people they trust.

This writer finds these sentiments overstated but such conversations hardly constitute an “anti-monarchy conspiracy”. While the Crown Prince had, let us say kindly, an impetuous youth and middle age, he seems to have grown far more responsible in his 50s. However, he has not been made party to the duties of kingship by his father beyond the purely ceremonial so it remains to be seen if he can retain the monarchy as a symbol of the Thai nation. These are uncharted waters and time will tell. But most of us in Thailand are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until he proves himself unworthy.

Egregious repression bearing even a mist of emanating from the throne will surely lead to the downfall of the 10th Chakri king, as stated in Thai cultural mythology. However, such repression is unlikely to come from the next king but from government lackeys. It would seem the Thai governments in flux may be, wittingly or unwittingly, setting up the future king for a fall from eminence precisely because of the national insecurity resulting in mass censorship.

The sheer volume of lèse majesté accusations is staggering, especially when one considers such accused may be gaoled for fifteen years or more. In addition to the sanctions of the Thai Criminal Code, many more prosecutions rest on the Computer Crimes Act 2007 which was the first law urgently passed by Thailand’s military coup-appointed legislature.

CCA prosecutions may not legally be initiated by anyone but the police. However, in practice, citizen charges are precisely what the police are permitting to take place. The military-supported CCA draft included the death penalty for computer crimes. The current version reduces the most severe penalties for lèse majesté to a span from three to 20 years. It should also be noted that any accused may be held by police without being charged for up to 84 days for the completion of its investigations.

The most prominent case in point is that of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of the independent online news website, Prachatai. Prachatai has long hosted one of the few open, public web discussion fora in Thailand. Some public posts to Prachatai were deemed to constitute lèse majesté and Chiranuch, as webmaster, was accused for not “moderating” these comments fast enough. She faces 50 years for 10 CCA charges and, as of September 27, two more for another 10 years. Journalism is obviously a dangerous profession in Thailand.

However, such accusations need not be current. Disgraced Prime Minister Thaksin’s office minister, Jakrapob Penkair, was charged with lèse majesté for maligning the first Chakri king who reigned from 1782 to 1809 as part of a panel at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT). The panel’s moderator, BBC correspondent Jonathan Head, was also accused as was the FCCT’s entire 13-member executive board of foreign journalists.

Thailand’s double-speak Ministry of Information and Communication Technology was created by the Thaksin government and began by censoring just 1,247 websites in January 2004 on a blocklist they published to the ministry’s website. This was the first ands last blocklist the Thai government has ever made public.

By 2008, MICT announced a program to block only 1,000 websites “containing lèse majesté content” at a proposed cost of Bt495 million or $15 million USD.

Nine Thai government agencies now block at least 210,110 websites according to official media releases from April 7. They use a secret blocklist and an undisclosed budget.

Emergency decree was applied to 24 provinces but, as of October 1, it remains in force only in three provinces and the capital. However, rule of law under the Computer Crimes Act has not returned to the rest of Thailand. No court orders have been sought to again block the websites currently blocked by emergency powers and massive censorship remains.

Not content with blocking the Internet, Thai government then began to monitor community radio and cable television “around the clock”. Much of this monitoring has been accomplished using another military-sponsored law, the Internal Security Act 2007 and its spawn, the Internal Security Operations Command, responsible for the most blatant extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and disappearances.

Martial law is a dangerous predicament for any country. No matter that, in Thailand, “emergency powers” result from a legislated “emergency decree”. The decree, in force from April 7, 2010, surrenders all government power to the military and suspends the rule of law. Except, apparently, in cases of lèse majesté because such cases have been even more aggressively pursued using both the Criminal Code and Computer Crimes Act since the prime minister’s decree.

Incidentally, the decree needs be renewed every 60 days and there seems to be no end in sight. Just when the Decree comes up for renewal, there’s another fugitive sighted or another minor bombing. History might show us how quickly Cambodia slipped into Year Zero or Burma fell to military dictatorship, too fast for any citizen to make a difference. Some think Thailand is quickly approaching its own Year Zero.

It’s time we the people decided what exactly lèse majesté means for defendants, for rule of law rests with precision. Is, for example, not standing for the royal anthem preceding a film, as did Chotisak Onsoong, lèse majesté? This sounds ridiculous to any thinking person, does it not? Does it not seem more important to the future of our society to find out what exactly Khun Chotisak was thinking?

Numbers, of course, speak louder than words. 765 persons were prosecuted for lèse majesté “between 2006 and 2009—an average of almost 191 per year—a 115% increase over the immediate previous decade when there was an average of just five new cases per year”.

Since the 2006 military coup d’etat there has been a 2000% increase in new lèse majesté prosecutions. In 2009, an all-time high of 164 new lèse majesté cases were pursued. Although reporting on almost all lèse majesté cases fall victim to the Thai media’s self-censorship, the conviction rate for such cases tried between 1992 and 2005 averaged 94%. Furthermore, there are no lèse majesté cases on record in which defendants were allowed to enter into evidence what they said was true or for the public good.

Sentences are mitigated by 50% if the accused shows suitable contrition and pleads guilty; this situation is almost universally true. In many cases, the king, on the prisoner’s application, grants Royal pardon. However, there are at least some lèse majesté prisoners who would not seek the king’s pardon.

“[T]here must be scores if not hundreds of Thais” in prison for this “crime”, at least 170 political prisoners, none of whom is known to human rights organisations or, indeed, to the wider Thai society.

Dr. Streckfuss’ Truth on Trial in Thailand questions our “Thainess”, or what makes us Thai. Our government has become a “defamation regime”—anyone who doesn’t agree with the body politic must be censored, censured and gaoled. Any suggestion that lèse majesté law be repealed or even amended is seen as a sign of disloyalty.

The cumulative efforts of the military and police, the politicians, the rich and privileged elites have succeeded in creating a xenophobic culture in which Thais reject any sincere offers of international oversight or even media commentary. These forces have manipulated many Thais into being knee-jerk Royalists. We routinely and systematically whitewash our history, setting the stage for an inevitable dictatorship.

The Thai regime has created a climate in which street demonstrations chant, “Ai [a grave insult] B******* ordered the [Redshirt] killings” and anti-monarchy graffiti are posted to public hoardings and toilet walls. As the reader can see, we must even self-censor the actual chant! It would seem lèse majesté law is having exactly the opposite effect politicians want us to believe. Or perhaps that’s just bureaucratic smoke-and-mirrors—the issue is simply about government control of the people.

Now you see it, now you don’t. So who’s got the dhamma? Surely not Thai politicians or generals or judges.

However, no one can afford not to be seen as loyal. These Royalists in Thai government are those committing lèse majesté by using our King without his consent to support their own agenda. Their agenda is perpetual power.

Truth on Trial in Thailand resurrects the censored ghosts of the 1948 Dusun-Nyor massacre, the October 1973 and 1976 students, the Black May 1992 victims, the Muslims murdered at Krue Se and Tak Bai in 2004, the Redshirts slaughtered at Ratchaprasong in Bloody April 2010 and applies them to Thailand’s living history. Only if history is healed, Thailand “can move forward once again…when Truth finally has its day in court…”

8 comments

  • Does it not seem more important to the future of our society to find out what exactly Khun Chotisak was thinking?

    So allow the military to torture him until they discover ‘what exactly Khun Chotisak was thinking’? I’m sure you cannot mean that, but that is surely how such a statement will be interpreted by the military.

    The State has no ‘right to know’ what Khun Chotisak or anyone else is thinking.

    The State has no rights, people have rights. That is the fact that needs to be understood, both intellectually an viscerally in Thailand. As elsewhere.

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  • yeah sure

    ha i wonder if any other countries would send you to Thailand for insulting their crown dor chadaa it’s not a funny issue though. sawat dee krap

  • Sweenwalker

    Thailand as I have known for the last 50 years is on the verge changing. The lower rungs of Thai society are getting smarter and can not be easily fooled as before. The royalists and others ruling elites know that the tide is getting stronger and stronger. No way that they can prosecute millions upon millions of people who realized the truth and want their voices be heard and be taken seriously.

  • Emilio

    I agree that those committing lese majeste are precisely those who claim to speak on behalf of the king. Take prayuth, for example, why is this staunch royalist so quiet over the Wikileaks cables that expose General Prem’s dislike of the Thai crown prince?

    Shouldn’t Prayuth be coming to Vajiralongkorn’s defence? Or is the fact that Prayuth’s future as army chief depends on General Prem more important than “protecting” the monarchy?

    • BornInThailand

      The Thai elites are taking their last breath and continuing to oppress and suppress the supposedly beloved subjects of the kingdom. This has been ongoing for too long, and the poor Thais are starting to notice how well these elites (and you know who you are) live in comparison to the poor people’s way of living. Oppression of the Thai people is coming to an end and now these elites can go and enjoy the assess they took from the land in Switzerland because that is where most if not all the assess these elites own is deposited. Go strong the Red Shirt: The Thais who are no longer able to live in the country because of this oppressive law are in support of your cause.

  • lek

    Thailand, like most ASEAN countries, defines defamation as a criminal offense. Thailand’s lese majesty laws are essentially identical to the defamation law that applies to all persons, the only difference being the severity of the possible sentence if convicted. If I were to select a random thai passerby on the sidewalk, even a poor farmer or taxi driver, and claim he is a theif and liar, for example, I would be at risk of arrest for defamation. It is therefore illogical and wrong to conclude that the lese majesty laws are some sort of move towards dictatorship. this point of view is just projecting the biases of the anti royals by making a false claim about lese majesty and then attacking it.

    • yai

      Thailand’s lese majaste laws and normal defamation laws are not essentially identical. The most notable differences besides the severity of the sentence are: 1) Anyone can file a lese majeste lawsuit, 2) Truth is not a defense in lese majeste but is a defense in normal defamation with a few exceptions.

      In practice, the court doesn’t seem to recognize constitutional rights of the accused in lese majeste cases, often denying bail and sometimes even shifting the burden of proof to the accused. How the court handles the case also depends on who you are — which side you’re on politically.

      I’m not sure which “false claim” the “anti-royals” are making. The law, as it’s been applied, stifles free speech and is used for political gains. If protecting the political elite at the expense of civil liberties is not dictatorship, I don’t know what is.

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