There has been considerable social media argument that the recent PBS discussion of the monarchy and lese majeste shows that great progress is being made. The point is generally that this show could never have been made and shown “before.”
There’s certainly something in this. Since the royalist military intervention in 1957, the monarchy has been a no-go area, except in the period around 1973-76, but even then the more critical discussion was largely underground. For example, the monarchy’s role in inciting massacre in 1976 saw considerable underground criticism but this was soon extinguished.
Following that event, the palace handlers decided that the way to “revive” the monarchy was to create a cult of personality focused on the king himself, effectively linking monarchy to an individual. Yes, he’d been promoted previously, but post-1976, the promotion reached remarkable levels that made rational and critical discussion of the monarchy impossible.
It is in this context that Voranai Vanijaka at the Bangkok Post reflects the social media discussion of the light in the dark. His view is unequivocal:
Thailand has made positive progress concerning freedom of speech and the lese majeste law, and that should be recognised.
At the time,
When magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk received an 11-year sentence for crimes related to lese majeste in January, much was made of the case.
From supporters of the law, there were cheers and applause. From opponents, there was an outcry and condemnation.
As PPT noted back then, the outcry is the positive, with Voranai citing the Chula-Thammasat football match and the social media campaigns associated with “Free Somyot” campaigns. He asks: “Would the students have dared to do this 10 years ago, five years ago, or even two?” He also points to the media:
Today, commentaries on lese majeste are routine whenever the issue comes up. Writers are ever more critical of the controversial law and its usage….
That’s true. But the fact remains that Somyos and several others (the actual number remains unknown) remain locked up.
Censorship remains. Voranai notes this:
The present situation regarding freedom of speech in Thailand is still far from ideal, but things are changing, and that is something we should recognise. In this recognition we can then nurture and foster an environment that is more conducive to freedom of speech.
On the Thai PBS talk show, he says:
Put it into perspective: The station had the courage to do such a show, and it was aired without some invisible hand first smiting it.
The show wasn’t yanked while on the air because somebody made a phone call to somebody. The station too defied threats and aired the last episode of the series.
Finally, Thai PBS formed a legal team to deal with any lawsuits or criminal charges they might face.
This does constitute “a concerted effort to stand for freedom of speech.” For Voranai, that the ultra-royalists, including Army boss General Prayuth Chan-ocha, could only bleat but “could not stop the airing of the entire five-part series.”
That’s true, too. But the saga is not over, and we need to see what the legal fallout is. The threats, the law and the state’s power remain in play in ways meant to repress.
Voranai himself shows how narrow the shaft of light really is:
Times are changing because people are pushing the envelope. In this, the media should take the lead. Not because we don’t respect the monarchy _ we do _ and not because we are not loyal to the monarchy _ we are.
That he feels the need to declare loyalty and monarchism in order to defend free speech demonstrates how the monarchy and lese majeste continue to limit free speech. That he chooses to speak for all is arrogant and mistaken elitism.
Voronai’s resort to the king’s 2005 speech is so boringly bland that we won’t comment much on it. After all, if the king didn’t want all these cases, he could make a simple and clear statement rather than a convoluted ramble that was really a criticism of elected politicians. He doesn’t, so all the references to 2005 is nothing but royalist propaganda. We think the palace loves this law.
We agree that:
Thailand is changing. Freedom of speech today is still a far cry from what it should be, but compared to 10, five or two years ago, there has been a lot of progress.
At the same time, just saying so neglects the important question of how Thailand became a censorship regime, how self-censorship became required of every Thai and how a cult of personality was created and enforced.
Voranai’s answer for this is deeply conservative, even Lee Kuan Yew-esque:
Thailand and the culture of the East in general will never be like Western democracies, not in the foreseeable future. We have different cultural DNA, our social values are different, our national psyches are an ocean apart.
His “Asian values” and “Confucianist” claims were ideological nonsense when it was made by LKY in the 1980s as a way to justify patriarchal authoritarianism, is now just dated nonsense:
Where freedom of speech in the West means institutions like royal families and religion are tabloid fodder and material for comedy skits, in Thailand and the East we still afford them a strong measure of respect and decency.
Such culturalist “explanation” is an excuse for repression.
Progress? Light? Well, yes, some, but Voranai can only conceive of this in narrow culturalist terms that is another excuse for elites to repress.
We think Voranai and the media will only be truly free when they can treat republicanism as part of a rational debate. Thailand will be free when the lese majeste law is gone. Until the lese majeste prisoners are released, everyone remains in chains.