Amidst great social media attention, Kong Rithdee has an account of a PBS program that has interviewed several commentators on Article 112 or lese majeste. PPT hasn’t watched all of the shows from beginning to end, but the couple we did were very good and pushed public debate further than we have previously seen in the mainstream media.Unfortunately, it seems PBS has decided that four shows debating lese majeste and the monarchy are enough and have pulled the show. More on this below.
Kong says of the show:
It was as close to an ideological thriller as we’ve ever had on Thai television, and I hope, my hand on my heart, that it will go down in history as the beginning of the time we finally realised the necessity of open, sane, civilised, televised, above-ground discussion as a way to scrutinise the great knots of our conflicts. Heavy flak has already flown and vilifying contempt has been heard at work, which is not unexpected, but I believe the first hurdle has been crossed.
The program is Torb Chote: The Monarchy Under the Constitution/ตอบโจทย์ สถาบันพระมหากษัตริย์ ภายใต้รัฐธรรมนูญ. The first, from 11 March, is the not particularly interesting but provides a background. One of the reasons it lacks interest for us it that it focuses on the relentless self-promoter Surakiat Sathirathai, looking like he just popped out from a meeting of the conservative Chinese Politburo. He has strong connections to the palace but his comments are all a bit drab and seem to us to merely reproduce “liberal royalist” nonsense that’s been around for years.Maybe we missed something as we got bored and moved to the more interesting interviews.
All of the clips are only in Thai.
Hosted by Pinyo Traisuriyathamma, the series moved onto historian and academic Somsak Jeamteerasakul, who speaks machine-gun fast, cramming in lots of information and views.
The third is with the ultra-conservative royalist Vasit Dejkunjorn. PPT has posted on this former royal policeman and royalist activist several times as a royalist racist, a royal spy, part of the cabal of palace intriguists, as propagandist for the monarchy, and anti-Thaksin warrior. We had some biographical details in our Old Men post. In the clip that follows, Vasit does all of these things over again, talking about a plot or plots to bring down the monarchy and sounding fearful that his era is ending.
In the fourth show, critical monarchist Sulak Sivaraksa and Somsak are put together. Kong describes them as:
sharp, outspoken intellectual firebrands with huge followers and nitpicker critics; they share a broad idea on the need to update the monarchical institution and the lese majeste law, though their lines of argument and rallying calls are different (sometimes starkly).
He goes on to describe this program:
Clearly the programme is pushing the envelope. And envelope-pushing is what we need when the same old blabbering inside our old, cobwebbed envelope isn’t taking us anywhere. The highlights of the five-night series were on Thursday and Friday, when Mr Sulak and Mr Somsak sat next to each other debating, eyeing up and staring down, hands moving in a complex telegraphy of their thought. First they exchanged pleasantries and then [verbal] punches, verbally wrangling, sometimes heated, sometimes cool, and altogether energising. What’s most important, however, is the fact that they said many things we never thought we’d hear on television. Names – Chuan Leekpai, Thaksin Shinawatra, MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra and his ancestors, and privy councillors – were dropped and dissected, sometimes in volleys of criticism, and the mentions of the monarchy were as frank, or as evasive, as the law allows. Of course they both wish the law would allow more, that’s the gist of it all.
In one startling stretch, Mr Sulak went on about Queen Victoria of England and how she really had no power to govern though she thought otherwise, then he described how the monarchical protocol is all “theatre”. Mr Somsak, meanwhile, homed in on a crucial point: slapping the wild-card charge of lom jao, “overthrowing the monarchy,” against anyone on the opposite side or anyone who wants to discuss the monarchy – as being an utter disgrace to the democratic system.
Kong points to the fierce debate that the program unleashed in social media and says that the debate, still ongoing, is significant:
We as the citizens, and we as journalists, who can now take comfort in the fact that some of the “sensitive” issues often talked about in murmurs, with hand covering mouth, or online, or totally underground, have made their way to national TV, in HD to boot. Television is known for accommodating emotion (think drama series) but in the right setting, it also encourages reason as a condition of being persuasive. It’s official: this five-day talk has raised the bar on possible discussion about the monarchy.
And that seems to be the point that has scared the royalists witless. Kong observes that:
Royalists are annoyed and irate, to varying degrees, and some have put forth the weirdest logic I’ve ever heard: Why on earth has Thai PBS, a public station funded by public money, brought above-ground and legitimises the figures and topics they believe should remain underground (or buried in an unmarked grave, especially Mr Somsak)? As if the job of public television was to keep feeding propaganda. As if the job of public television is to fawn and flatter and let us hear only what conforms to what we think. Switch to commercial channels then. To raise questions in good faith and in the service of society is precisely what public television must do, and not refrain from doing. It’s fine to disagree with – even to despise – Mr Sulak and Mr Somsak, but to try to stop them from speaking reasonably and intelligently is the mark of a backward and uncivilised society.
It does seem, however, that figures in PBS and the government have been frightened or had the frighteners put on them. Just a few hours after Kong’s story came out, he had to add this:
The article … was written on Friday, just hours before Thai PBS banned the broadcast of the last episode of the five-part series “Thai Monarchy Under the Constitution”, a talk programme hosted by Pinyo Traisuriyathamma.
While parts of the content in the commentary remain valid, a large chunk of it now sounds wrong and naive, especially my assertion of faith, now proved false, in the future of our public television. The censorship was a great disappointment, a heartbreak even.
It invalidates the contribution that the show had made during its first four episodes, because by banning it, the station has sent out clear signals that sane, reasonable and open discussion on “sensitive” subjects cannot be allowed.
It discourages any further attempt by journalists and writers to continue in the direction that the show has already started. After all, there’s no light at the end of any tunnel, proverbial or real, because once again, we’re kept like sewer rats in perpetual darkness.
Pinyo has also spoken out, writing that there are ludicrous claims that the program somehow infringed the sections of the constitution that protect the monarchy and pointing out that the same constitution is meant to protect freedom of expression. While he claims that the longevity of the monarchy can only be protected through a real constitutional monarchy, it seems to PPT that it is impossible for freedom of expression to exist while the monarchy is protected by royalist-military constitutions, feudal laws like Article 112 and a ruling class that owes its power and wealth to the primacy of the monarchy. Pinyo calls on the management of PBS to explain what has gone on and who has intervened. The last word in this post, also in Thai, belongs to Pinyo:
Update 1: At the Bangkok Post, there is a story that reports “Thai PBS executives have defended their decision to cancel the final episode of a debate on the constitutional monarchy.” It seems that because a handful of complaining royalists showed up at the station (the report says 20), the executives “feared broadcasting the discussions could spark social conflict.” Yes, the monarchy has moved so prominently into the political fulcrum following the palace-military coup in 2006 that just talking about the it ignites fear.Or at least that is their excuse. PPT thinks they got an order from someone, either in the government, in the military or in the palace. Of course, we have no evidence, but we can’t believe that the possibility of “conflict” was not considered even before the programs were made.
The seemingly spineless lot managing PBS decided that a “debate on proposed amendments to Section 112 of the Criminal Code, or the lese majeste law, was also [too ] sensitive,” and could not be aired.
As noted above, “Pinyo called on station executives to clearly explain their decision to cancel his programme. He insisted the decision to stop producing the show was not caused by any interference from the government or anyone connected to the royal institution.”
Update 2: Prachatai has a post with English-language details of the debate between Sulak and Somsak.