King Bhumibol Adulyadej with The King.
The Thai government has covered itself in glory once more. Abhinya Sawatvarakorn—a 20-year-old student nicknamed "Kanthoop" or "joss stick"—could be sentenced to 15 years in jail for violating Article 112, a law that bans any defamation of the country’s royal family. I don’t want to indulge in too much cultural relativism, but that's a bit like being sent to Rikers for getting on Facebook and telling everyone you think Obama is a jackass with an ugly mole on his face and an old bag for a wife.
This isn’t a one-off incident, either. As Human Rights Watch point out in this report, in November last year Ampon Tangnoppakul, a 61-year-old man, was sent to prison for 20 years (or the rest of his life) for sending a few texts that were considered offensive toward the Queen and the monarchy at large. The person who ratted him out? The recipient of the texts, who was one of the Thai prime minister’s secretaries. So, you know, maybe that's a bit naive on poor old Ampon's part, but it does at least show you how seriously these lese majeste (being mean to monarchs) laws are taken.
Instances of Thai people getting really upset if you insult their royal family are common (one reformist was beaten up by twins in a carpark last week), but the king himself has come out and said he should "not be above criticism." So what the fuck's going on? To find out, I spoke to regional expert Charles Moré, the Asia editor of Africa Asia Confidential.
VICE: Hi Charles. Given that the king himself has said that he is not above criticism, why is the government cracking down so severely on any kind of dissent?
Charles Moré: King Bhumipol usually stays above the cut-and-thrust of politics. His reticence stems partly from the limited powers he has now since absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. Accusations of lese majeste have little to do with the king himself. Because the bar for perceiving offence is pretty low, the law has turned into a pretty convenient tool for politicians to smear their opponents with.
Why are there such harsh pro-monarchy laws in Thailand?
Historically, Thai society has been rigidly hierarchical, and the king is right there at the top. Each constitution since 1932 has accorded the monarchy a privileged position and sought to protect the royals from disrespect and criticism. Article 112 of the current constitution makes it very clear that there's a three to 15-year punishment for lese majeste, but the problem is it doesn’t actually define the crime.
What sort of reputation do the monarchs have as people?
King Bumipol has reigned since 1946, and he’s earned a lot of respect for backing development projects and advocating humanitarian causes. He’s a jazz fan and a composer of some accomplishment. You can listen to one of his pieces here. There's a great article about him called "The Jazzy King," too. He represents stability in a country that has seen numerous governments overthrown by the military. There is, of course, a public relations machine that burnishes the king’s already admirable qualities to a radiant shine.
His descendants enjoy varying levels of popularity. But it is hard to imagine any of them inspiring the same devotion when the time comes for succession.
Thaksin Shinawatra has a chequered reputation in the UK, but, given that he seems to have stood up to the monarchy in some way, is that reputation deserved?
Well, Thaksin didn't really stand up to the monarchy. His accomplishment, rather, was to win elections through a populist campaign. Thaksin was one of Thailand’s richest men, but he built up a support base in the rural areas by promising universal healthcare, assistance for farmers, and development funds for impoverished areas. His party swept the 2001 elections and, in doing so, really upset the urban elite.
As Prime Minister, Thaksin was a polarizing figure. His "War on Drugs" in 2003 was popular, but was stained by what appeared to be extra-judicial killings and heavy collateral damage. And, given his family’s wealth, there were always accusations of conflicts of interest. The family profited immensely by the sale of Shin Corporation to Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund—the law blocking such a sale had been amended under Thaksin’s watch.
What kind of opposition to the monarchy is there? Can there ever be concerns voiced about the monarchy? Is it something people do privately?
As you might imagine, even if people have their doubts about the monarchy, they are reluctant to express them openly. There is a lot of support for the monarchy, both as a tradition and as an indication of the genuine affection people feel for King Bhumipol.
But plenty of gossip and rumour surround the royal family, much of it regarding Prince Vajiralongkorn. In unguarded moments, Thai friends will sometimes repeat some of the juicier nuggets.
Oh, what juicy nuggets might they be?
I wouldn't dream of spreading any rumors, which I'm sure are nothing but scurrilous falsehoods. I suggest googling "Thai prince foo foo birthday." Also, you may find WikiLeaks has what you need.
The fam (left to right): King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Sirikit.
Excellent. Does the Thai government monitor its citizens very closely?
The government has stepped up its vigilance against perceived lese majeste violations. Human Rights Watch recently called attention to a government “war room” that monitors websites and social media for objectionable content. So there's a real risk that online criticism—whether deliberate or unintended—will be prosecuted.
Do you think this latest case will change anything? Could we see an international or domestic backlash?
Kanthoop’s case is, unfortunately, just one of many lese majeste cases in recent years. I don't see much possibility of a domestic backlash; her cause does not seem to have inspired widespread sympathy in the country.
Nor do international complaints accomplish much. Last year, a Thai-born US citizen was arrested while passing through Thailand and jailed for things he'd posted at his US-hosted website. American protests achieved nothing.
The current prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is already widely seen as her brother Thaksin’s proxy. She will be reluctant to touch such an emotive issue.
Well, that seems both depressing and highly believable. Thanks Charles!
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow