Updated: The impacts of lese majeste

25 11 2017

Somehow we missed an article by journalist Delphine Thouvenot who writes for AFP. “Trading Softly in Thailand” is interesting because it is an attempt to cut through the palace propaganda and show the impacts of the lese majeste law. It is worth reading in full, but here are some interesting bits:

In many ways, I should have been moved when some 300,000 people poured out on the streets of Bangkok in October for the days-long funeral of Thailand’s late King Bhumibol….

But as a foreign journalist, I was well aware of the other side of the monarchy, which is protected by one of the strictest lese-majeste laws in the world. People have landed in prison for posting an unflattering BBC portrait of a new king on Facebook, or posting comments deemed insulting to the late king’s dog (seriously)….

On the funeral: “All other coverage vanished from newspapers and television.”

When I first got to Thailand, I, like most Westerners, was also fascinated by the ceremonial rituals of the land….

But after four years of living here, the initial fascination had worn off….

I did not see anyone questioning whether the year-long mourning period, or its cost or impact, was justified….

Well, we had some comments, but back to the story:

Because of the lese-majeste, news outlets like AFP have to tread carefully about what they write about the royals. So reporting in Thailand has been tricky at times….

A few days before the funeral, I went to interview Sulak Sivaraksa…. He is a rare intellectual who dares to speak out, but still with extreme caution. The only thing that he accepts to have on the record is that, if past kings are also protected by lese-majeste laws, historians won’t be able to do their jobs….

Ahead of the cremation, I tried to find analysts to speak about the significance of the event. I got one refusal after another. Finally one, David Streckfuss, based in Thailand, agreed. He dictated his quotes to me word by word, changing them here and there to make sure the formulation was not too daring. Normally I would have found this nitpicking ridiculous. But here, I could understand his caution.

One of the things he told me is that other monarchies, like the one in Britain, could evolve because they were open to criticism from civil society. There is nothing like that in Thailand. On the contrary, the Thais are always careful what they say about the royals — there have been instances of people being denounced by a brother, a taxi driver, a neighbor….

Britain’s Daily Mail has been blocked in Thailand for years, after publishing embarrassing material about the new king….

The royal palace is a well-oiled [propaganda] machine. There are no news leaks here. Messages are transmitted in circuitous ways….

That’s not entirely true as there are leaks (think of the naked Srirasmi video), but the general point is true. And, under King Vajiralongkorn, expect efforts to prevent leaks as he attempts to control his image ever more carefully.

To understand what’s going on in Thailand, you need to become adept at reading nearly subliminal signals at times. For example, on the day of the cremation, I see a woman get down from the new king’s Rolls Royce. She is dressed in red, like the new king, and is a familiar face at official ceremonies, but newspapers never write her name or title. (Like they never write about sons who were products of the new king’s second marriage and who currently live in the US.)

A video colleague who had come from Hong Kong to help with coverage asks who the woman is, so that he could put it in the script accompanying his video. Thai colleagues get uncomfortable and tell him to forget it. We all know who she is, but we can’t write her name without official confirmation.

So I call the palace spokeswoman to ask this young woman’s title. After a long pause, she directs me to the office of the new king…. which never answers the phone. The identity of the mystery woman will remain for our clients just that… a mystery.

Of course, there was more than one consort-concubine involved.

Needless to say, neither I nor any of my colleagues have interviewed the new king. I made a request to do so last year, when he was still a crown prince. I was told to go directly to his palace, Ambarasathan, to deposit my written request by hand. I’ll never forget the guards at the palace, all wearing a pin with a portrait of the prince as a baby on their uniforms. I never did get that interview, but the trip was worth it just to see those pins. To me they spoke volumes about the personality of the next king who will head this nation.

We are left to assume that Delphine Thouvenot has left Thailand. Otherwise there would be trouble. There would be trouble because of revealing nothing other than the secrecy of the palace and its machinations.

Update: A reader pointed us to an Australian radio report as an example of the pathetic approach still taken by some reporters based in Bangkok and for who the initial fascination has not worn off. The bit on Thailand must please the palace propagandists.


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