The Times on lese majeste, succession and breaking a taboo

10 11 2009

Presumably this article from the Times will also be blocked in Thailand (11 November 2009: “Siamese spat”). PPT reproduces it here:

Thais should be free to understand more about the role of their own monarchy

On Monday The Times published an interview with Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted Prime Minister of Thailand. As a result of his comments about that country’s Royal Family, part of the Times Online website has been blocked in Thailand. Thaksin and this newspaper’s Asia editor could also, theoretically, face up to 15 years in jail. The Thai laws of lèse-majesté have always been excessive. They now look childish, too.

To those unversed in the peculiarities of the Thai system, Thaksin’s alleged offence may be hard to discern. He did not abuse the Royal Family, or even find fault with them. Instead, he merely discussed the link between the monarchy and Thai politics, and speculated as to how the landscape might change if the much revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, should one day die.

King Bhumibol is the world’s longest-serving head of state and is admired in Thailand for the stabilising role he has played during his six decades on the throne. He is also 81, and has been in hospital for the past seven weeks with suspected pneumonia. This should not have been inflammatory stuff. Thailand is an exciting, modern, forward-looking nation, but nothing jars with this quite so much as the antiquated prohibition against discussing the monarchy in anything but the most fawning and platitudinous terms. At times, the country can seem less like a constitutional monarchy and more like a personality cult. This benefits nobody, not even the royals themselves.

Indeed, in this as in so many things, King Bhumibol himself is a beacon of good sense. “The King can do wrong,” he reminded the Thai people, in an address on the eve of his 78th birthday. “If we hold that the King cannot be criticised or violated, then the King ends up in a difficult situation.”

In recent years, the King has found himself in such a difficult situation a number of times. The Royal Family themselves do not invoke the law of lèse-majesté , but when citizens bring charges on their behalf the police are obliged to investigate. Earlier this year the King pardoned an Australian author who had been sentenced to three years in prison owing to a 100-word passage in a novel that sold seven copies. More often, they are exploited as a means of silencing dissent, imprisoning dissenters or of cowing domestic and international journalists. The BBC’s respected correspondent Jonathan Head has found himself investigated for lèse-majesté on several occasions. This is a petty law, which only opens Thailand up to ridicule.

In Thaksin’s words, either way, one finds neither criticism nor violation of the monarchy. Instead we find something that the Thai Establishment regards as equally taboo — the mere acknowledgement that some in the royal circle may have some involvement in Thai politics. That this should be publicly unutterable in any 21st-century nation beggars belief, let alone one with the potential and ambition of Thailand.

In his interview, Thaksin spoke of how influences in Thai public life may change, should King Bhumibol be succeeded by the Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. We wish the King a speedy recovery, but whatever the future holds, Thailand can only benefit from a free and frank discussion of its own system of government. Scrutiny need not entail disrespect.

Update: Richard Lloyd Parry (Times, 11 November 2009: “The interview that dared to break Thai royal taboo”) has a short commentary on the meaning of his interview with Thaksin and the question of succession, which is reproduced in full below:

Blogs, chat rooms and websites are buzzing with it; the item has been partially banned [Thaksin-RichardLloydParry] and the interviewee and interviewer face prosecution for “insulting” the monarchy. So what has so upset Thailand about The Times’s interview with Thaksin Shinawatra , the deposed Prime Minister?

In the interview, Thaksin — who was deposed in a military coup subsequently approved by King Bhumibol — spoke warmly of the monarch. The former Prime Minister’s complaint that royal courtiers had plotted his overthrow had been made before.

“The King is the most respected person,” he said. “The monarchy is good for Thailand. Thailand needs a monarchy, but it should not be abused or played by the palace circles.” But Thaksin also spoke of his hopes for the King’s heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.

“After he becomes king, I’m confident . . . because he has observed His Majesty, his father, for many years.”

It appears that this reference to the eventual demise of King Bhumibol has upset Thai royalists. A commentary in the Bangkok Post, a national English-language newspaper, said: “Several people who have read the full transcript of Thaksin’s interview do not find any remarks offensive to the monarchy. But for many Thais, any public discussion about the succession is deemed offensive and inappropriate to the reigning monarch.” However, there is more to it than the pain of imagining the inevitable demise of a beloved monarch.

Like his father, the Crown Prince is protected by the lèse-majesté treason laws, which explains the tentativeness with which even the foreign media speak of Thai attitudes towards him. But, as Thaksin acknowledged with considerable understatement, Vajiralongkorn “may not be as popular as His Majesty the King”. A biography of King Bhumibol by Paul Handley, an American writer, which also touches on the taboo subject, is denied distribution in Thailand.

Giles Ungpakorn, a left-wing Thai academic who fled to Britain after facing a lèse-majesté prosecution, said: “The King will be dying soon and his son — to quote Paul Handley — is ‘hated and feared’. And I think Paul Handley is right.”

The fear is that, with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn on the throne, the shaky unity would be tested, perhaps to breaking point.



One response

21 11 2009
Hurt feelings not lese majeste? « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] Prime Minister’s Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey is cited as saying that “The Times of London editorial criticizing Thailand’s lèse majesté law was aimed at dissembling an interview given by […]

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