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.





Updated: Making monarchy

19 11 2017

Sport360.com is not usually the subject of a post at PPT. Yet we felt there’s one point in an article about a middle-ranked Thai golfer that reflects something being seen more broadly in Thailand.

Readers will recall the widespread criticism of now King Vajiralongkorn as his father declined and his succession became a reality. There were suggestions that there was a succession crisis that might even split the country or bring down the monarchy.

We are not sure that the succession crisis was all it was said to be. Even so, thanks in part to the repressive military regime and its displays of loyalty to the monarchy, and despite the king’s grasping and threatening personality, he seems to be settling in.

This isn’t all that different from his father’s experience in the period when the royalist General Sarit Thanarat grabbed power and managed the early period of the royal restoration.

Part of the process of creating this new monarch is making a public image that can be used in propaganda.

This process has begun. He’s a “concerned” monarch: he reportedly expressed concern for people waiting for the funeral; he wanted more done for flood victims. We have no idea whether these “concerns” were real or concocted; the point is that they become part of building the image.

So how does golf fit? Under the deceased king, it became almost mandatory for athletes to display excessive loyalty, often handing over their trophies to the king and dedicating their victories to him and his claimed “inspiration.”

Many royalist Thais have come to see this propaganda as “normal” and even expect such displays. Some athletes seem to understand the requirement for regular expressions of loyalty, contrived or otherwise.

So when golfer Kiradech Aphibarnrat turned in a reasonable score in a recent tournament, it became a monarchy story: “Thailand and its proud people have gone through emotional turmoil this year [apparently because the king died last year] – but one of the country’s most beloved sportsmen has risen above it.”

The article claims that Kiradech “has flown the Thai flag high” and hopes for a good score in an event “to honour the late king’s memory.”

That’s all about the dead king, but then this from the golfer: “I’ve tried to do my job. It hasn’t been a good year for Thailand after we lost the king, even though we have a new, fantastic one…”.

There it is. The more it is repeated, the more likely it is to ingrained. Vajiralongkorn has many traits that saw him ridiculed. The military has banned ridicule and has tried to limit the reports. More statements like Kiradech’s will pile on the propaganda that the military and palace hope will overwhelm the negative past.

Update: A reader tells us that we should have mentioned Khaosod’s story of about a week ago, on the king getting in on the charity run for hospitals by Toon Bodyslam. The king is said to be Toon’s “biggest fan.” It was reported that: “To show his appreciation for Toon’s ongoing runathon for 11 hospitals across the country, … the [k]ing has arranged gifts to be sent to the 38-year-old singer on Wednesday when he arrives in Surat Thani province…”. He sent one of his top officials, a general, to hand over the gifts. There’s no news on how much money Thailand’s richest man is donating…. There’s probably a reason for that.





Ultra-royalists on the warpath

4 11 2017

In a post on lese majeste just a few days ago, we observed that the dead king’s funeral provided another opportunity for ultra-royalism to reach yet another high point. Unfortunately, it only took a few days for this to be reinforced.

Watch this video of the BBC’s Jonathan Head as he speaks to Narisa Chakrabongse, the great-granddaughter of King Chulalongkorn, who was King Bhumibol’s grandfather. This was on 25 October.

According to some ultra-royalists, this interview constitutes lese majeste.

A youth group we haven’t heard of before, calling itself Young Thai Blood has demanded the dismissal of Head for what they consider was a questioning royalist propaganda (rather than reinforcing it).

We couldn’t help wondering about the rightist congruence on identification, from the Hitler Youth – “Blood and Honour” – to the Unite the Right rally in the US and their use of “Blood and Soil,” adopted from Nazi Party ideology.

Such references suggest the group probably has links with security agencies in Thailand and is likely a creation of those agencies. Interestingly, though, social media comment suggests that the original complaint came from a disgruntled expatriate.

As usual, when the boys of Young Thai Blood claim “Thai blood” for themselves, it is not clear that they really mean “blood.” Rather, it seems they mean a state of mind encased in a body located in the country now called Thailand.

These ultra-royalist dunces rallied on 2 November 2017, and “filed a petition at the British Embassy in Bangkok, urging the UK government to dismiss Jonathan Head, South East Asia Correspondent for BBC News.”

Obviously, these lads don’t are confused and understand that the “BBC is a statutory corporation, independent from direct government intervention…” and that they should have addressed the BBC rather than the Embassy. They blustered and made demands:

Young Thai Blood stated that Head’s question created a misunderstanding about the late King. The question [about the genuineness of love] allegedly reflected the BBC journalist’s lack of knowledge about Thai culture, despite Head having been stationed in Thailand for many years. In addition to calling for Head’s dismissal from the BBC, the group asked for an official apology to all Thai people for having disrespected their beliefs and culture.

“As young people who have Thai blood, we therefore call on the UK government to consider the action of the reporter of the BBC Thailand office and terminate his duty in Thailand, and for the office to publish a statement of apology to Thai people throughout the country,” said Petchmongkol Wassuwan, the group’s representative.

Like all ultra-royalists, they claim to speak for all Thais rather than themselves or their group.

Ominously, these ultra-royalist babblings were supported by M.L. Panadda Disakul, a prince and the Deputy Minister of Education, who says that “Head does not understand Thai history, culture or social etiquette, which should be basic knowledge for any correspondent working in Thailand.” He means that all foreign correspondents should shut up about the monarchy except when producing the same trip that emanates from palace and state propaganda agencies. The princeling called for Head’s expulsion: “He should go back and rest in his home country first…”.

Such rightist rants fit well with the monarchy-military alliance that is seeking to dominate Thailand well into the future.





Observing the funeral

27 10 2017

There’s now a ton of reports about the royal funeral. Much of it involves repetition of the kind of unduly reverential stuff we have posted on of late. Funerals don’t tend to get much critical attention.

While we haven’t looked at every report, one of the most bizarre from the foreign media was an Australian reporter’s effort to find a link with his country. Not the king having been to military school in his country. No, the link to the funeral was found in the horses, said to be from Australia.

Some international reports were visually interesting. A couple mentioned lese majeste, including one at Al Jazeera. Yet this report is schizophrenic in that it is headed by a wholly hagiographical video that is among the most hopelessly useless repetition of palace propaganda we’ve seen. The written report below it is at least a little more insightful. Much better is a BBC report that at least attempts to provide some critical assessment of situation and event (the report is difficult to find at the BBC website, but Andrew MacGregor Marshall provides the link via his Facebook page.

As the BBC report states, many who wanted to attend the funeral were kept out of the area. We assume that many watched the live broadcast of the funeral, which went at a snail’s pace and dragged on all day and night. It concluded by not showing the cremation at about 10 pm. In place of the cremation, well-worn footage of the dead king in the field was shown. Most Thais will have seen these exact images hundreds of times in recent years and more times over several decades.

One thing that was odd about this failure to show the cremation is that the live stream did not advise viewers that it would not be shown (at least that we heard, and we didn’t watch it all). It did repeatedly state the time of the cremation.

The Bangkok Post states: “Live broadcasts were not allowed for the real cremation among the royal family, scheduled to take place at 10pm after another religious rite at 8.30pm at the Song Dhamma Throne Hall.”

One can only wonder as to the reason for this. The cremation was a family event? There’s a taboo about it? Commoners can’t watch such royal events? Or, as some of the more scurrilous social media accounts have it, the  queen, who was not seen during the events of the day (at least not by us), was not to be seen in her sadly incapacitated state.

Whatever the reason, many Thais may well feel that, after a year of official mourning and calls to be “involved” in the funeral, they were short-changed.

Some other events of the funeral deserve mention.

It was noted that the “royal cremation ceremony organising committee” allowed “157,778 people” enter “the Sanam Luang area as of 1pm to attend the royal cremation ceremony.” These people “were separated from the invited VIPs and distinguished guests, who were in the inner area, by fences.” Apart from foreign guests, the VIPs were mostly minor royals, senior bureaucrats and military.

There was some social media discussion of the fact that the (dead) king’s body was not in the ceremonial golden urn. We were bemused by this discussion as this was well-known from the time of his death and reported several times. The urn has become a ceremonial throwback, not unlike the monarchy itself.

We also noticed that all of the officials involved seemed to have the now standard throwback short back and sides military-style haircut that the new king demands of all of his minions.

Meanwhile, we also noticed some of the king’s concubines in full military kit and heard several shouted orders to assembled troops from them. One, presumably (General) Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhya, acting as head of the king’s guard, hopping in and out of his several cars as the king went to and from the ceremonial grounds.

The overall image of the funeral was its militarization. The funeral was essentially a military parade, including several iterations of the Colonel Bogey March. The king, all those of the royal family who could, and civilian officials all marched in military style, punctuated by numerous gun salutes from soldiers firing rifles and cannon.

Religious and ceremonial aspects of the funeral were subordinated to its martial tone. The Dictator and the king appear united on Thailand’s military future, just as the dead king appreciated the symbiotic relationship he had with military strongmen.





Good rich king, bad rich king

25 10 2017

Are we the only ones who have detected a change in the way that critics of the monarchy are writing about it?

While we recently posted on the ninth reign as a bloody era where thousands of citizens were disappeared, jailed, tortured and killed by the state, usually operating in the name of the monarchy and, for the most part, supported by the king, other commentaries seem to be eulogizing that reign.

An example, and it is one of several, is a New York Time op-ed by Matthew Phillips, a historian in Wales.

Phillips repeats several of the lines from Bhumibol hagiographies and palace propaganda:

Thailand’s previous king … is credited with transforming Thailand into a modern nation-state and unifying the country during times of political turmoil.

The author might acknowledge that this is pure propaganda that ignores real history.

Then in 1946, Bhumibol ascended to the throne, and after a discreet first decade….

The author doesn’t seem to think it important to mention the death of King Ananda Mahidol or the royalist efforts to pin that on innocents and to send political opponents into exile. We would have thought that period was pivotal for the rise of a royalist military.

A military coup in 1958, pro-American and high on Thai pride, placed the (U.S.-born) king at its center, and the Thai public reacted enthusiastically.

We can’t help wondering about how public enthusiasm is measured? By the bodies that piled up under General Sarit Thanarat’s despotism?

King Bhumibol is often credited with foiling a Communist movement during the Cold War, liberalizing the Thai economy and keeping the country together despite its often-fractious politics.

Again, he is “credited” with these superhuman feats, but it is usually palace propagandists making these points.

The rest of Phillip’s article is quite good, so we are not sure why he repeats these lines of hagiography. In other stories, it seems the authors are pining for the past 70 years, comparing that era with what they think is going to be an awful reign under the erratic and narcissistic Vajiralongkorn.

The good bits seem to us to build on several insights from Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. The previous king and his advisers came up with the propaganda device that made its wealth a sign of merit and allowed others to share in it.

On the funeral, he notes that “… there is little discussion over the expense of King Bhumibol’s cremation.” He adds that, “for the monarchy, has been to make royal wealth seem sacred, and any contribution to it appear virtuous.”

He notes the growth of royal wealth under the dead king.

The royal family, thanks in part to a raft of projects with business, academia, the arts and charities, has implanted itself at the center of Thailand’s cultural and social life — apparently far from the messy, brutal realities of capitalism and political gamesmanship. Giving money or labor to a royally endorsed project has come to be seen as a good deed, and so an opportunity to improve one’s chances of an auspicious rebirth in the Buddhist reincarnation cycle.

… Bhumibol’s material legacy also is great. The Crown Property Bureau, the agency that manages the royal finances, has vastly expanded its business portfolio. Neither the bureau’s assets nor its operations are entirely known, but the Thai monarchy is now thought to be the world’s richest, with an estimated fortune of at least $30 billion. Under … Bhumibol, the royal family of Thailand has become fabulously rich….

No debate there, although the figure is probably closer to $50 billion now. And the new king has control of it. The “fun” is about to begin.





The old propaganda tricks

22 10 2017

We at PPT haven’t spent much time on the dead king’s upcoming funeral.

That said, we did have a critical post yesterday that was about venal propagandizing for the monarchy. We did that because Thitinan Pongsudhirak locates himself as a commentator of contemporary Thailand for the West. When he makes stuff up, there’s a chance that his readers might just believe his hagiography.

Sure, there has been a lot of this, in Thai and in English. In fact, it is as if the last few years of critical attention to the monarchy has been erased.

Indeed, that has been the task of the military dictatorship. It has wanted to erase discussion, debate and contention over the monarchy. Lese majeste has just been one of the repressive and blunt neuralyzers used.

This has extended further by the dictatorship, in alliance with the palace, by seeking to erase memories of any moments when the monarchy was criticized, put in its place and opposed. Symbols of such periods, like the 1932 plaque, are stolen and disappear.

One of the untruths pedaled by Thitinan is that the dead king “owned no fancy vehicles or other trappings that would have been seen as extravagant and lavish…”.

We take it that “owned” is not a way to hide a lie, seeking to separate the man from his family and palace. But it is simply a lie but one that has been endlessly repeated by palace propagandists.

Forget all those luxury vehicles, erase all knowledge of the wealthiest monarchy in the world, blur images of palaces all over the country, and all the other lavish accoutrements of royal position, power and wealth. Forget how much the taxpayer has subsidized the wealthiest monarchy in the world.

In relation to this, we were interested in a Reuters report on the upcoming funeral. It states:

The military government has set 3 billion baht ($90 million) aside for the lavish funeral. Preparations took almost a year to complete, with thousands of artisans working to create an elaborate structure of gold-tipped Thai pavilions in a square in front of the glittering Grand Palace.

We think this is a gross underestimate, but let’s accept it and observe that it amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of roughly $2 million for each year of the reign.

One outlet, using the Reuters story had this headline: US$90MIL … FOR A FUNERAL –ISN’T THAT TOO MUCH? BUT IF YOU SAY, YOU CAN BE JAILED FOR ‘LESE MAJESTE’: THAILAND REHEARSES LAVISH SEND-OFF FOR LATE KING.

Reuters also includes one paragraph that pokes at the huge propaganda about the monarchy in general, observing that the:

revival in the monarchy’s popularity [following 1932 and especially since 1958] was helped by a formidable public relations machine –- the evening news in Thailand includes a daily segment dedicated to the royals and the late king was often featured in his younger days crisscrossing the country to meet the poor and disenfranchised.

That period was actually rather brief – in a period following the king’s fatigue-wearing counterinsurgency activism and into the General Prem Tinsulanonda period, when the taxpayer took over royal projects – but has become one of the lasting images that the palace and various regimes have not wanted to neuralize.

The hagiography associated with the funeral has reproduced every single piece of royal propaganda and all the old and familiar (approved) images.





Taking and “giving”

24 06 2017

A recent story at The Nation is useful for displaying how palace propaganda works.

Princess Sirindhorn has is reported as “graciously” granting (they mean she’s given) “30 tonnes of rice to the government for use during the Royal Cremation ceremonies of late King Rama IX.”

That means she’s handing over quite a pile of rice to be given away to spectators at the royal cremation. The family is supposed to do this. Its one of those  propagandized “traditions” that is meant to show the fabulously wealthy royals are “generous.”

The Dictator threw himself on the floor before her photo and dragged along a legion of his minions to a taxpayer-funded “ceremony at Government House to accept the rice from the Princess.”

How nice. But then the report explains that the “rice was previously collected by Community Rice Centres nationwide and was presented to the Princess when she presided over an annual Rice and Farmers Day event early this month.”

This is rice collected from others and given to her. The nonsense is that she’s not generous at all, she’s just passing on stuff she collected for being a princess who regularly collects gifts, checks and bags of cash.

Thirty tons is nothing and it cost her nothing. But that’s how palace propaganda works.

Meanwhile the taxpayer is forking out real money to pay for her father’s funeral. You’d think that as multi-billionaires the royal family might fork out a bit, but it seems not as they are deserving of propaganda and praise.