Lese Majeste! Locking Triangle of ugly culture, dirty politics & anti-democracy

Introduction:

I heard a story, about how a billionaire foreign educated Thai, in his 70s, who has friends and net-work all over Thailand, from high to low, who lived in Thailand most of his life, never heard of lese majeste before. The story goes, one day, a newspaper wrote about it for the first time in 10s of years, and he saw it. He was in shocked, and said, quote: “They do that to people?” The funny thing to the story is, he is a staunch Royalist. Then one day, some one got sick, and the news was kept quiet. But there were rumors. One day, that same billionaire, heard from a friend what the illness was. And he said, quote: “I do not even know what happened, crazy.”

Interesting, what lese majeste can do to people’s mind!

(Up-Dated) Under Prayuth’s junta, massive numbers, at historical breaking level, of lese majeste cases are being levied on the Thais Leak documents from the junta, to which I can not confirm, says the junta sees people, who are calling for democracy in Thailand, as trying to topple the Thai monarchy.

(Up-Dated) Under Prayuth Dictatorship, the Nation reports, about 4,000 cases of lese majeste complaint, has been lodge by the Thais, with the police, by other Thais. Lese majeste cases, now, are also being handled by the military tribunal, passing very hard sentence.

Note: This report is a condense of the original posting, as last year, my internet activity was being observed by the MICT. And because the only potential offense was lese majeste, I have amended this report to cut out potential lese majeste content. My apology, but my family was very concerned and lese majeste crime in Thailand carries very long jail sentence.

1)

An Inconvienence Death

The Economist sums up Thailand’s lese majeste as, quote: “A sad story of bad law, absurd sentences and political expediency.” That is a frank assessment, but Thailand is not ready for it. Over the years, many Economist Magazine was ban in Thailand. And Freedom House, have even rated Thailand a “Not Free” country in the past, from all the censorship, mostly, related to lese majeste.

The Economist, wrote in May 12th 2012, about a famous lese majeste prisoner.

  • HIS only crime, allegedly, was to send four text messages to a government official about Thailand’s royal family. But they were deemed by a court to be offensive to the monarchy, and under the country’s strict and oppressive lèse-majesté laws Ampon Tangnoppakul was sentenced, in November, to 20 years in prison. The whole case, and especially the wildly inappropriate sentence, sparked an outcry, both in Thailand and abroad. Mr Ampon, a hitherto blameless and unrevolutionary 61-year-old, became known as “Uncle SMS”. He denied all charges, claiming that he did not even know how to send a text message.

On May 8th Mr Ampon died in a Bangkok prison hospital. He had been unwell, but the exact cause of his death has still to be determined. It has provoked renewed concern over the increasingly harsh application of the lèse-majesté laws, enshrined in Thailand’s criminal code and a newer Computer Crime Act. “Red shirt” activists, supporters of a former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a coup engineered by royalist generals in 2006, protested and delivered funeral wreaths to the hospital.

Some red shirts also express growing frustration on this issue with the present government, headed by Mr Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Red shirts helped her Pheu Thai party to a landslide victory in a general election last July, and were hoping to see the new government tone down, or even repeal, the lèse-majesté laws.

After all, as they see it these laws in the past have been used mainly against Thaksin supporters for partisan political purposes, including to snuff out opposition to the coup against Mr Thaksin. Indeed, before 2006 the lèse-majesté laws were used sparingly. Since then, however, the number of convictions has shot up, and the sentences have got harsher. Critics argue that these laws are not only anachronistic, but also widely abused. Designed to prevent insults against the monarchy, they are now used to curb freedom of speech in general, and to prevent criticism even of the royal bureaucracy and the constitution.

2)

Anonymous

A great deal have been written about the ugliness of lese majeste law and usage in Thailand. But what is its historical context? How does it fit into the Thai society. What about Democratic Development? Anonymous has the answer!

  • By Anonymous

The battle lines are drawn, in the ongoing fight over Thailand’s grotesque lèse majesté laws. It’s “Western” democracy versus “Thai” culture. In contemporary political discourse, after all, ”culture” is just about the only word whose international currency rivals democracy’s. To be sure,  culture commands more respect than the “dictatorship” and “oppression” it is frequently invoked to mask. As a justification for torture, murder, and the arbitrary imprisonment of political opponents, pseudo-cultural arguments are not only effective at home —where they can be tailored to fit just about any narrative about the imperative to protect traditional values from corrupting alien impositions. They also appeal to a sizable constituency of self-loathing Westerners whom third world dictators have somehow turned into their apologists — useful idiots persuaded not only that basic human rights are, indeed, “alienable” but also that championing the right of non-Western peoples to speak their minds or otherwise control their own destiny amounts to doing violence to their cultural heritage.

Whatever the outcome of this fight will be — the ultimate outcome is not in doubt, but it could go either way in the short run — framing the debate in these terms is counterproductive for everyone, on both sides of this fight, who loves the country, its people, and its institutions. Advocates of democracy are much too quick to defer to the brown-nosed apologists of the current regime on the true content of Thai culture. And the defenders of Thailand’s cultural heritage — those for whom cultural discourse is more than just a rhetorical strategy to legitimize an elite’s privileged access to political power — often betray a rather cartoonish view of both the “culture” they seek to defend as well as the alien cultures whose encroachments they so stalwartly oppose.

The key misunderstanding that plagues well-intentioned people on both sides of this pointless debate is that no “culture” is really specific enough to mandate a single regime type, a single form of government, or a single configuration of institutions. This, incidentally, is true of “Thai culture” as much as it is true of the miscellany of cultures crassly lumped together under the all-encompassing “Western” label. And, in the specific case, it is a gross oversimplification — in plain language, a lie — to say that restrictions on anyone’s ability to discuss basic political issues are any more ideally suited to Thailand’s cultural values than they would be to those of any country in the West.

Lest we forget, most places in Western Europe were ruled by more or less absolute monarchs for much longer than Thailand has been — not to mention much longer than they themselves have been “democratic.” Democratization not only constitutes a very recent development in countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. As recently as four or five decades ago, it was rather common to suspect that democracy was destined to fail in countries distinguished by the “parochial” and “subject” political cultures prevalent in southern Europe. Participatory, pluralist institutions, it was thought, are unlikely to work properly in contexts where citizens are generally passive, uninvolved, and deferential to elites. Interestingly, these are more or less the same arguments made about Thailand’s supposed incompatibility with “Western” democracy.

Lest we forget, moreover, it’s in the country with arguably the proudest republican tradition in Europe — France — that the model of royal absolutism originates. Indeed, it is from French-style absolutism that King Chulalongkorn the Great borrowed heavily in his attempt to build the kind of modern state that Thailand still lacked as of the mid-nineteenth century. Is “republicanism” any more compatible with French culture than “royalism?” To be sure, few people would have argued as much in 1788. Yet, that’s exactly what France got in 1792. The fact is that “French culture” prescribes neither. French culture has given rise to, and has in turn been re-shaped by, both royalist and republican ideas.

Just as there is nothing especially “democratic” about Western culture, it could be argued that Thai culture is not quite as unfriendly to so-called “Western” democracy as it is often made out to be. In fact, there are at least three inconvenient facts that undermine the argument that the lèse majesté legislation is merely the legal expression of foundational, long-held values more integral to Thai culture than is the unfettered expression of political ideas.

First, it’s not really true that Thai culture is historically any more “undemocratic” than most “Western” cultures. It could be argued, as famous social critic Sulak Sivaraksa did twenty years ago, that Thai society came to embody the ideals of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” five hundred years before the French ever came up with that slogan. Way back in the thirteenth century, the people who lived in the kingdom of Sukhothai experienced levels of equality and freedom vastly superior to those most Europeans enjoyed at the time [UPDATE: Exactly how “free” they were is in dispute; see the exchanges in the comments below]. Consider this passage from the venerable Ramkhamhaeng inscription (dated 1292 CE). At a time when most Westerners lived as serfs — essentially the property of feudal overlords — King Ramkhamhaeng had these words inscribed on his throne:

In the time of King Ramkhamhaeng this land of Sukhothai is thriving. There is fish in the water and rice in the fields. The lord of this realm does not levy toll on his subjects for traveling the roads; they lead their cattle to trade or ride their horses to sell; whoever wants to trade in elephants, does so; whoever wants to trade in horses, does so; whoever wants to trade in silver or gold, does so. […] When commoners or men of rank differ and disagree, [the King] examines the case to get at the truth and settles it justly for them. He does not connive with thieves or favor concealers [of stolen goods]. When he sees someone’s rice he does not covet it; when he sees someone’s wealth he does not get angry. […] When he captures enemy warriors, he does not kill them or beat them. He has hung a bell in the opening of the gate over there: if any commoner in the land has a grievance which sickens his belly and gripes his heart, and which he wants to make known to his ruler and lord, it is easy: he goes and strikes the bell which the King has hung there; King Ramkhamhaeng, the ruler of the kingdom, hears the call; he goes and questions the man, examines the case, and decides it justly for him. So the people of this muang of Sukhothai praise him. [Translation in David K. Wyatt, Studies in Thai History, p. 54-55.]

The Ramkhamhaeng inscription contrasts sharply with contemporary accounts of life in medieval Europe as well as with the model of political and social organization that became dominant in Siam with the rise of Ayutthaya. It describes a strikingly egalitarian society where the king’s subjects were remarkably equal under the law and free to pursue economic activities of their own choosing. It describes a society ruled by an accessible king, one who is confident enough in his own position to routinely lower himself to the level of his subjects to adjudicate their disputes. The king is accorded praise and respect not simply qua inherently superior being, but because of what he does for his people. Historian David K. Wyatt suggests that King Ramkhamhaeng self-consciously defined the administration of the Tai kingdom of Sukhothai in contrast to the more hierarchical, more unequal, more obsessively ritualistic Khmer kingdoms ruled by self-styled “gods.” With the rise of Ayutthaya, however, it was the very Khmer practices Ramkhamhaeng looked upon as bastardizations of Tai culture —slavery, Brahmanism, sakdina, and devaraja rule — that ultimately won out. Incidentally, that’s in part the reason why fanatical nationalists in Thailand are obsessed with Khmer ruins like Phra Viharn (and even Angkor). After all, it is only by claiming ownership of Khmer traditions that they can avoid acknowledging the fact that some of the key organizing principles of modern Thai society are no less foreign than the Western “impositions” they so valiantly resist.

The second inconvenient truth is that no such thing as Thailand existed (whether as a political entity or even merely as an idea) as of two centuries ago. Not only is present-day Thailand essentially a negative construct — it includes contiguous territories in mainland Southeast Asia left over from French and British colonization. The rulers in Ayutthaya and then Bangkok never really controlled much beyond the Chaophraya basin and the country’s eastern seaboard prior to the nineteenth century. When they did come to control what is now Thailand’s north, south and vast sections of the outer northeast, it was not by plebiscite or popular insurrection that these territories gave their allegiance to the King of Siam. It was rather by conquest and skillful political maneuvering. Parts of northern Thailand, for instance, were essentially brought under Siamese control in exchange for bailing the Lanna rulers out of the debts they had incurred with European trading companies. As such, how much sense does it really make to speak of a single Thai culture? How can whatever Thai national identity the people of Udon Thani, Chiang Mai, and Nakhorn Si Thammarat share be understood without reference to the homogeneity enforced by the authorities in Bangkok through sustained propaganda and a good deal of violence — not to mention the most careless disregard for traditional local customs? And how really “natural,” “sacred,” or otherwise worthy of insulation from domestic debate (not to mention “foreign” ideas) should we presume that single, national identity to be?

Third, it has escaped many on both sides of this debate that lèse majesté legislation as it is currently interpreted and enforced is not something that has existed in Thailand from time immemorial. In fact, at least with respect to the monarchy, the Thai press was immeasurably more free a century ago than it is today. For much of their rule, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) and King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) — whose job description, it should be noted, was “absolute” (not “constitutional”) monarch — were subjected to vicious criticism and sometimes pointed derision by the local press. And though repression was intermittently applied, the Thai journalists of the time could afford to be much more than the neutered bunch of sycophants they have now become. By contemporary standards — in an obscurantist time when restrained, somewhat apologetic articles in the Economist pass for mortal affronts — the cartoons and editorials routinely printed in the pages of early twentieth century Thai newspapers are genuinely shocking. Scott Barmé’s book Man, Woman, Bangkok provides an especially compelling illustration.

Once again, these considerations point to the conclusion that there is nothing especially “Thai” about lèse majesté. The legislation itself has little to do with Thai culture. In fact, Thai society had shown itself mature enough to tolerate, for decades prior to the more recent restrictions, open discussion of the monarchy. Lèse majesté is rather but a quintessentially modern instrument of repression that leaders like Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat instituted to stifle political debate about the very content of Thai cultural values and identity. It exists not to defend Thai culture, but to enforce the vulgar, comic-book version of Thainess the military and bureaucratic elites have produced and propagated to advance no cause greater than their own aggrandizement. In this sense, those in Thailand and abroad who defend lèse majesté legislation on cultural grounds would do well to read some Thai history before they accuse foreign observers of ignorance and Thai dissidents of apostasy.

Also lost in this idiotic juxtaposition of “Thai culture” and “Western democracy” is that, far from being incompatible, cultures (Thai or otherwise) need dissidents to survive. The practices, traditions, values, beliefs, and institutions typically associated with culture can only hope to endure through the kind of constant renewal which requires of a society the courage to come to terms with its history and the willingness to engage in discussions however unpleasant or divisive. John Stuart Mill famously argued that it is in the interest of any society (or culture) to protect the expression of ideas that a majority of the population might find revolting:

“If the opinion [of the minority] is right, they [the majority] are deprived of the opportunity to exchange error for truth; if [the opinion of the minority is] wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit — the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error” (Mill, On Liberty).

As Mill’s reasoning suggests, it’s only under the most stultifying of censorship regimes that slobbering retards like Thanong Khantong are paid to write opinion columns in major national publications.

3)

Bangkok Post:

Evolution, Not revolution

Bangkok Post, a far right wing extremist newspaper here in Thailand, propagates evolution, not revolution. Bangkok Post says progress is being made, but it will take time. Yet how many more Uncle SMS must there be? Is it fair and understandable, that many are out-raged by lese majeste?

  • The darker side of lese majeste:

Bangkok Post; 31 Mar 2013

Last Sunday in the article “The Brighter side of lese majeste”, we discussed how Thailand is changing. Social media and information technology allow us to obtain information and discuss ideas more openly than ever before.

While the lese majeste law won’t be reformed any time soon, Thai people are developing a consciousness, forming an opinion and making a stance _ and that is progress. However, if the end goal is to change Thai society so that it embraces the democratic principles of freedom and human rights, we’re going about it the wrong way.

We should set an example for constructive debate, framing the dialogue in the context of culture and history, not just ideology. But instead, in Facebook wars and face to face, even the most educated among us mindlessly sling mud and engage in one-upmanship. We show a lack of empathy and vainly presume that we are always correct and anyone with a differing opinion is absolutely wrong and ought to be ridiculed. The emotional commitment to our cause gets the better of our rational judgement.

Thai PBS’s Tob Jote political talk show, which featured a five-part series on the role of the monarchy, is a fine example of two intelligent, respectful individuals engaging in a rational, constructive discussion. It’s an example we all should follow.

If the end goal is to change Thai society so that it embraces democratic principles, then it stands to reason that it’s the task of proponents of these values to change the hearts and minds of the traditionalists.

Lese majeste amounts to ink on paper, and that’s never done anyone any harm. We can’t change the laws if we don’t change hearts and minds.

Confrontation such as this protest by the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Section 112 at Thammasat University is unlikely to gain changes to the lese majeste law. (Bangkok Post file photo by Pattanapong Hirunard)

Picture a typical Thai person with traditional values – let’s call her Fai, a middle-age woman. Fai takes care of her family. She goes to work. She pays taxes. She makes merit at the temple. Her lifestyle is not unlike many other Thais or many people of other nationalities, for that matter.

She stands at attention in the movie house when the royal anthem is played, not because she has to, but because she wants to. She has a portrait of the King in her house. She wears the King’s colour on special occasions and prays daily for his good health.

This is the only King she has known. To her, he represents the Thai national identity that has held the country together for some 60 years, through the Cold War and communist insurgency, while our neighbours fell apart, their families destroyed and their societies crumbled. This is the King who has always been shown among the people, caring for the sick and helping the poor.

Fai loves the King with all her heart. She’s a royalist, but not a People’s Alliance for Democracy member or yellow shirt. This is an emotional commitment that forms the basis of a firmly entrenched belief system – democratic principles are relatively new in Thailand and have only touched all parts of Thai society in recent years.

We all have emotional commitments to things or people we love or hold sacred. Now take that and multiply it by 100, and imagine Fai’s rection to anyone she perceives is insulting or making fun of the King, whom she loves and holds sacred.

Now picture someone else, someone who puts himself on a pedestal and who is much less of a traditionalist – let’s called him Ko. Though Ko does not insult or make fun of the King, he talks down to Fai. He throws the democratic left hook, the freedom uppercut and the human rights kick to the groin, calling her an ultra-royalist, fascist PAD. Then that person’s foreign friend – let’s called him Carlos – joins in, calling her a feudal slave in a country that will never amount to anything.

Then Ko and Carlos exchange high-fives, go online and write on their blogs about the wonderful civilised world of democracy. They tweet and write on their Facebook pages, ridiculing anyone who doesn’t completely agree with them. This is because, well you know, everyone completely agrees with Ko and Carlos about freedom, human rights and democracy; otherwise they are ultra-royalist PAD-loving feudal slaves.

Meanwhile, Fai clams up, fearing not just insults and ridicule, but also constructive criticism.

Fai is not the one who wrote, passed, interpreted or executed the lese majeste law. But she and millions like her do not object to the law, and even support its strict usage. They support of it because of emotional attachments and for cultural reasons, but also because of people like Ko and Carlos.

Too often, the likes of Ko and Carlos are the proponents of democratic principles. They enjoy the adulation of their own group of like-minded people, but they are never able to reach out to others. It’s a mutual adoration society.

Receiving applause from those who already agree with us is sticking with the status quo. Receiving applause from those who previously disagreed with us is progress.

We may disagree with Fai’s support of the lese majeste law, but if we fail to appreciate and respect how she thinks and feels, then we have not only failed in our democratic principles, we have failed to behave intelligently.

Instead of making a stance for democratic principles, the likes of Ko and Carlos are really only taking a stand for their own vanity. We shouldn’t make democracy the new religion – it deserves better treatment than that.

Allow me to humbly suggest that Fai and millions like her are intelligent individuals who can be reasoned with; that they want the best for Thailand, even if their vision of what is best differs from ours, and that if we act out of respect and decency, we might persuade Fai and others like her to appreciate open discussion and constructive criticism on any subject, including the monarchy. Not everyone, but enough to steer society on a democratic course.

Ko is perhaps very Westernised and is adamant about democratic principles, and perhaps he wants to turn Thailand into whichever Western country he idolises. Perhaps Ko’s heart is also in the right place and he also wants the best for Thailand. But Ko is impatient and believes his fancy overseas degrees mean he knows better than other Thais. This too is because of an emotional attachment, as well as a delusion. And when that is challenged, Ko lashes out.

We shouldn’t turn our back completely on the values that have made this country what it is. Thailand is far from ideal, but it’s still a place people from across the globe flock to visit and to live in, and it affords more opportunities, freedom and human rights than most of the rest of the world.

If we turn our back on Thai values, then we turn our back on our own country and the generations of our parents and grandparents.

From a position of respect and decency Ko and Fai can learn to listen to and understand each other, and together make Thailand the best it can be. We can marry respect and decency with democratic principles without the need for draconian laws.

Nation-building is not done in a day, a year or even 10 years. It takes time and perseverance. We are all impatient and want it all now. But that’s not possible.

By thumbing his nose at Fai, dismissing her thoughts and feelings and disregarding the cultural and historical context of Thailand, Ko is giving up on Thailand, his own country. In this, Ko does himself, his country and the world a disservice.

I ask Ko’s forgiveness for this harsh criticism; it’s tough medicine, but Ko needs to get over himself.

The darker side of lese majeste isn’t the law itself – words written down might give you a paper cut, that’s about it. It’s the narrow-mindedness and self-righteous indignation surrounding the law that perpetuates the conflict. We have all been guilty of that, including myself.

My name is Ko and in my high school Spanish class I was Carlos. I have been guilty of most of the traits I’ve attributed to them at different points in my life, especially when I was a teenager. But evolution is a wonderful thing.

If anyone out there has never been guilty of vanity and small-mindedness, then good on you and you can stay on your pedestal. But if we want to change the world, we have to start by changing ourselves. Stay on the pedestal, or jump down. Your response to this column will reveal who you are, or who you want to be in this world.

4)

Conclusion: Not Free

Well, as the likes of Bangkok Post propagates “Tolerance” of lese majeste, Thailand has been rated “Not Free” for the second time in as many years by US-based Freedom House in its 2012 global assessment due to heavy sentencing by courts under the lese majeste law, as well as online censorship. “Thailand moved from Partly Free to Not Free [in 2011] due to court rulings that the lese majeste law does not contradict constitutional provisions for freedom of expression and that third-party hosts are liable for lese majeste content posted online.

And political prisoners languish in jail.

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