Reviews and reads

9 03 2016

Readers might be interested in two more reviews of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis. We posted on earlier at least eight earlier reviews of the book, and these reviews can be found here.

The first is probably already widely known as it is by Andrew Walker at New Mandala. In a lengthy review, Walker states:

It certainly is a myth-busting tour-de-force showing how Thai kings, and the elites that surround them, have regularly generated political crises, which also reflect competition between narrow sectional interests.  However, whether or not the book will achieve its myth-busting objective is hard to tell. Most readers, I suspect, will already be converts to MacGregor Marshall’s position. By contrast, those who subscribe to the royal mythology will probably be confirmed in their view that unsympathetic Westerners like MacGregor Marshall are determined to slander the royal institution.Kingdom in crisis

Walker concludes:

… Marshall’s preoccupation with the succession points to a broader problem with this book.

Despite its provocations and iconoclasm this is very much a royalist account of Thai history. Like Thailand’s royalists, MacGregor Marshall places the king at the heart of the Thai polity. In A Kingdom in Crisis, contestation over royal power is the engine room of 21st century Thai politics, as it has been over the past millennium (p  213).

The mass of people sometimes do feature, but they are peripheral to MacGregor Marshall’s central purpose. When they do enter into the narrative, it is as an undifferentiated mass of “ordinary  people” who are struggling against the elite in pursuit of “greater freedom and a fairer society” (p 109).

This two-dimensional and a-historical model — a cut-throat elite ruling over a repressed population — is classic orientalism and contributes little to an understanding of the complex and cross-cutting social and economic forces that have brought Thailand to its contemporary political impasse.

The other review is by Jim Glassman in the journal Pacific Affairs. The review can be freely viewed. The review begins:

The publication of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis has been a much-awaited event among Thai scholars. Marshall, a Scottish journalist who used to work for Reuters, has been releasing large pieces of this study for a number of years now, at his “#thaistory” blog. The book adds something to this material but will not be a huge surprise to those who have read his work at the blog site.

Glassman adds that the book is really rather thin:

Given the relative paucity of accessible and critical English-language writing about the Thai monarchy, and the risks that such writing entails, A Kingdom in Crisis should be considered a significant accomplishment, and Zed Books should be given credit for being willing to publish it….

For many scholars and people fairly familiar with Thai politics, some of Marshall’s analysis will nonetheless prove fairly thin gruel. It is not only that there has actually been a string of books in recent history that raise telling issues about the monarchy and challenges of succession—for example, the works by Benedict Anderson, Paul Handley, Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, William Stevenson, David Streckfuss and Thongchai Winichakul, which the author cites, as well as works by Kevin Hewison, Rayne Kruger and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, which he doesn’t cite—but Marshall’s explanation of the current crisis is somewhat one-sided.

Acknowledging shortcomings in the book, Glassman concludes:

A Kingdom in Crisis is a useful read, particularly for those unfamiliar with the roles of royalist-military elites (and their international allies) in shaping Thailand’s ongoing struggles for democracy. It will certainly find its place on the bookshelves of Thai democracy activists—provided they do not live in Thailand.

In the same issue of Pacific Affairs there is an article which is of interest because it is based on a survey of serving military officers. The authors of “Professionals and Soldiers: Measuring Professionalism in the Thai Military” are Punchada Sirivunnabood of Mahidol University and Jacob Isaac Ricks of Singapore Management University. The abstract states:

Thailand’s military has recently reclaimed its role as the central pillar of Thai politics. This raises an enduring question in civil-military relations: why do people with guns choose to obey those without guns? One of the most prominent theories in both academic and policy circles is Samuel Huntington’s argument that professional militaries do not become involved in politics. We engage this premise in the Thai context. Utilizing data from a new and unique survey of 569 Thai military officers as well as results from focus groups and interviews with military officers, we evaluate the attitudes of Thai servicemen and develop a test of Huntington’s hypothesis. We demonstrate that increasing levels of professionalism are generally poor predictors as to whether or not a Thai military officer prefers an apolitical military. Indeed, our research suggests that higher levels of professionalism as described by Huntington may run counter to civilian control of the military. These findings provide a number of contributions. First, the survey allows us to operationalize and measure professionalism at the individual level. Second, using these measures we are able to empirically test Huntington’s hypothesis that more professional soldiers should prefer to remain apolitical. Finally, we provide an uncommon glimpse at the opinions of Thai military officers regarding military interventions, adding to the relatively sparse body of literature on factors internal to the Thai military which push officers toward politics.

Meanwhile, at the Journal of Contemporary Asia, a third paper from the forthcoming Special Issue, Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand’s Authoritarian Turn, has been published. “Inequality, Wealth and Thailand’s Politics” is by well-known political economist Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit of Chulalongkorn University.

The abstract for the paper states:

Acemoglu and associates argue that resistance to democratisation will be stronger where inequality is high. Piketty shows that shifts at the upper end of the distribution may be historically more significant than overall measures of inequality. In Thailand, the high level of income inequality has eased slightly since 2000, but there is a ‘1% problem’ as peak incomes are growing faster than the average. Newly available data show that inequality of wealth is very high. At the top of the wealth pyramid, family holdings of commercial capital are growing. A significant proportion of top entrepreneurs have emerged within the past generation. A second tier of the wealth elite has developed over the past generation from rising property values, financial investments and professional incomes. Although their individual wealth is much less than the corporate elite, their numbers are much greater. The existence of the prospering ‘1%’ and the emergence of the second-tier wealthy may corroborate Acemoglu’s proposition, but there are tensions within the wealth elite which may favour democracy.

Updated: Bookseller escapes lese majeste

20 04 2014

As Khaosod has noted, the number of lese majeste accusations has suddenly spiked. Such spikes are usually a reliable measures of fascist and royalist efforts to control politics and increased political agitation.

In all of the madness associated with these allegations and charges, by crazed monarchists and even one by some unthinking red shirts, Prachatai reports one small piece of good news: “The Criminal Court on Thursday acquitted a 65-year-old vendor of a charge of lèse majesté. He had been arrested for selling the banned book The Devil’s Discus at yellow shirt rallies in 2006.”

The account of the secret trial is perhaps the most bizarre that PPT has seen to date, although we can only rely on short reports.Devils Discus

It took eight years to get a result, which we believe is potentially unconstitutional under Section 40 (3), which we list below.

But it apparently got stranger, for when Khun U (whose name has been withheld) was finally acquitted, it seems that the court decided to put the book on trial rather than the poor bookseller.  The bookseller was acquitted “because the prosecutors failed to prove that the defendant had the knowledge that the book had lèse majesté content.”

The Court “ruled that the book had content defaming the King, and the writer, Rayne Kruger, intended to insult the King,” which is not true at all, but then Kruger has been dead since 2003.

Prachatai’s account of events is revealing:

The book, written by English-South African author Rayne Kruger and published in 1964, was declared illegal by the Thai authorities in 2006. It was translated into Thai by Chalit Chaisithiwet and a Thai version was published in 1974. According to Wikipedia, as soon as the book was published, it was banned in Thailand and Kruger was also banned from further entry to Thailand.

According to the accusation, there are six sections in the book which constitute lèse majesté. The six sections are the author’s presentation of “theories” about the cause of the former King’s death which involve the current King. The author concluded that the former King was likely to have committed suicide because his relationship with a foreign woman was unacceptable.

The police arrested him and confiscated a copy of the book and also a copy of the Same Sky journal, the “Monarchy and Thai society” issue of Oct-Dec 2005 (the Coca Cola issue). The two works were banned under the now-abolished Printing Act. The Public Prosecutor, however, only pressed charges for selling ‘The Devil’s Discus’.

The judge said that even though the book concluded that King Rama VIII committed suicide and did not involve the current King, the younger brother of King Rama VIII, it still unnecessarily mentioned King Bhumibol, which may cause misunderstanding among readers. Therefore, the writer had the intention to defame the King and the book was deemed lèse majesté, the judge concluded.

Lese majeste judges are now literary critics as well as censors and mad monarchists.

All of the prosecution witnesses stated that they “only read the six excerpts of the book selected by the police, and had never read the whole book,” and yet could still determine that the book constituted lese majeste. Defense witness, Sulak Sivaraksa, who had read the book, “both in the original English version and the Thai translation, said that when reading in its entirety, it did not necessarily lead the reader to have a defamatory attitude toward the current [k]ing.”

In other words, this trial was really of The Devil’s Discus rather than the bookseller.

According to the report, one of the defendant’s lawyers, said: “the ruling created a new standard in Article 112 cases. The ruling means that a single line in a book can alone determine that the whole book constitutes lèse majesté without consideration of the writer’s intention from reading the whole book.

Clearly, any “discussion of King Ananda’s death might land a person in jail for lèse majesté.”

On the constitutionality of a secret trial, the constitution states:

Section 40. A person shall have the rights in judicial process as follows:

… (2) fundamental rights in judicial process composing of, at least, right to public trial; right to be informed of and to examine into facts and related documents adequately; right to present facts, defences and evidences in the case; right to object the partial judges; right to be considered by the full bench of judges; and right to be informed of justifications given in the judgement or order;

(3) right to correct, prompt and fair trial;…

Clearly, Section 40 (2) has been breached. Lese majeste is a law in Thailand that is above the constitution and allows judges to, in fact, breach the law, something they have done several times in cases involving, for example, Darunee Charnchoensilpakul and Somyos Prueksakasemsuk.

Update: A reader asks an intriguing question: did the bookseller get off because he was a vendor at a yellow shirt rally? What would have happened if he had been selling the book at a red shirt rally?


Lese majeste and the need for secrecy

18 02 2014

PPT missed this story a couple of days ago regarding yet another, essentially unconstitutional, in-camera trial of another lese majeste case.

Prachatai reports that the South Bangkok Criminal Court has agreed to a “request from the Public Prosecutor to hold in camera the trial of a 65-year-old man charged with Article 112 or lèse majesté law for selling a banned book on the death of the King Rama VIII.”

On 11 February, the defendant U. (name withheld) who is a book seller operating from temporary stalls and at street markets, has been charged with selling a Thai translation of The Devil’s Discus by Rayne Kruger.That book was an account of several possible causes of the gunshot death of King Ananda Mahidol in 1946 and was published in English in 1964.The book was “banned under the now-abolished Printing Act.”

PPT has several posts on the book. One of our posts was of an earlier report of this case, including a name-redacted PDF of the prosecutions charge sheet that can be downloaded here (6 pages). The Thai-language version กงจักรปีศาจหลัง is scarce, but see commentary here. There’s also a long discussion at New Mandala from 2008. The Thai translation is reportedly by Chalit Chaisithiwet and was published in 1974.

The defendant was reportedly “arrested when selling books at a People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) gathering at Lumpini Park” on 2 May 2006.

The Public Prosecutor claims “there are six sections in the book which constitute lèse majesté. The six sections are the author’s presentation of “theories” about the cause of the king’s death which involve the current king.” While most informed observers now seem to assume that the then King was accidentally killed by the present king, Kruger “concluded that the former king was likely to have committed suicide because his relationship with a foreign woman was unacceptable.”

The courtroom door has a sign that says “Secret Trial. No Entry.” In the trial, Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office, Thongthong Chandrangsu again appeared as “an expert on monarchical ceremonies” and testified as a prosecution witness, something he has made a habit. It is reported that Thongthong admitted “he did not finish the book,” but he considered “the six selected sections which involve the current king, … to be lèse majesté.” Thongthong also revealed that:

although the book says the assumptions in the six sections are likely to be impossible and comes to a different conclusion, it does not disprove those assumptions involving the current king. Someone reading the book may possibly believe in one of the theories [involving the current king].

The defendant’s attorney rightly observed to the court that “to determine whether a book constitutes lèse majesté or not, one needs to read the whole book, not a selected part.” Of course, any reasonable person would agree, but here we are dealing with the irrationality of lese majeste where reasonableness is the first casualty of the politicized nonsense that is supposed to be a court proceeding.

The case continues on 25 March. Prachatai states that an “international human rights body submitted a letter to the court to observe the secret trial, but the court did not approve the request…”. It is far easier to hold a secret trial where the shenanigans of the court cannot be scrutinized.

Banned books week 2013

25 09 2013

It is Banned Books Week again! If in Thailand, there are many books banned, almost all of them to do with the monarchy. Try these:

The King Never SmilesThe King Never Smiles. The publisher, Yale University Press, says this of the book: “Paul Handley provides an extensively researched, factual account of the king’s youth and personal development, ascent to the throne, skillful political maneuverings, and attempt to shape Thailand as a Buddhist kingdom. Handley takes full note of Bhumibol’s achievements in art, in sports and jazz, and he credits the king’s lifelong dedication to rural development and the livelihoods of his poorest subjects. But, looking beyond the widely accepted image of the king as egalitarian and virtuous, Handley portrays an anti-democratic monarch who, together with allies in big business and the corrupt Thai military, has protected a centuries-old, barely modified feudal dynasty.”

Devils DiscusThe Devil’s Discus. From Wikipedia: “All public discussion of the death of 20-year-old King Ananda Mahidol, the present king’s elder brother, of a single gunshot wound to the head is discouraged and not taught in schools even to history majors.” Another Wikipedia entry states that The Devil’s Discus  “is an investigation into the death of King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) of Siam (later Thailand) by English-South African author Rayne Kruger…. The final section “Who Killed Ananda ?” is Kruger’s own analysis of the evidence surrounding Ananda’s death leading him to the conclusion that the only satisfactory explanation is suicide. He supports this theory with the revelation of a love affair between the young King and a fellow law student in Switzerland, Marylene Ferrari, a relationship which would not have been acceptable to Siam’s Royalist institutions.”

ThaistoryA third “book” that would be banned if officially published is the internet-based  #Thaistory or Thailand’s moment of truth: A secret history of 21st century Siam by Andrew MacGregor Marshall. One reader’s view of the book: ““Perhaps the biggest bombshell of reportage on Thailand in decades… Marshall’s account is the most thorough, and in many ways damning, assessment of the royal family’s influence over politics in history. His reporting, and the cables they are based upon, leaves no stone unturned – or unblemished: The queen’s influence, often negative, over the tense situation in southern Thailand; the military’s growing use of lese majeste laws to crack down on opposition; the foibles and venality of the crown prince; the vultures circling around the palace as the end of King Bhumibol’s long reign ends.”

This is just a sample of banned books. As Wikipedia notes: “According to a study by the Political Science Library at Thammasat University, from 1850 to 1999, 1057 books and periodicals were officially banned by publication in the Royal Gazette…”. Two of the three above were published after 1999. In the recent period too, censorship has expanded, with internet-based materials being most critical. Under the post-2006 coup rightist governments, and especially that led by Abhisit Vejjajive, censorship expanded considerably.

Other banned or suppressed material can be found amongst the little collection of papers and links at PPT’s “library” (which is in need of updating) and at Wikileaks@PPT.

Old book leads to new lese majeste charge

1 09 2013

Just revealed at Facebook by Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a new lese majeste case, apparently now underway in Bangkok.

Marshall produces a name-redacted PDF of the prosecutions charge sheet that can be downloaded here (6 pages). Remarkably, this case in 2013 apparently refers to a sale of The Devil’s Discus, a book printed in 1964, and translated into Thai and circulated in various forms over many years in some libraries and passed from hand to hand by interested readers.Devils Discus

The Devil’s Discus, authored by Rayne Kruger, on the still unexplained death of King Ananda Mahidol is not readily available. Nor is the Thai-language version กงจักรปีศาจหลัง, but see commentary here. There’s also a long discussion at New Mandala from 2008.

It seems the unfortunate bookseller currently charged sold a copy of the book or distributed a copy of what we assume was the Thai translation. However, we are somewhat confused by the quotes in the translation, which are from the English version. Perhaps Marshall’s translators simply cut-and pasted from that version.

What follows is the unofficial translation of the charge, provided by Marshall, which includes inaccurate information put forward by the prosecutor such as quoting a theory that the present king shot his brother by accident or intentionally; in fact, Kruger rejected this possibility in favor of suicide.

At the time the wrongdoing in this case took place, and at present, Thailand is a democratic country with a king of the Chakri dynasty as the Head of State, and His Majesty King Bhumibol … is the current king, Rama IX. According to the Thai Constitution of 2007, Article 2, “Thailand adopts a democratic form of government with the King as Head of State”, and Article 8, “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.”

On May 2, 2006 after midnight, the defendant immorally dared to distribute the book entitled The Devil’s Discus, which has messages/information defaming/violating King Bhumibol….

Some passages in of The Devil’s Discus are as follows:

1. The accident theory has been shown to be almost worthless, but this has been on the assumption that Ananda was alone when he died. However, the fact that the boys always played with their guns together, and the less well-known fact that the high-spirited Bhoomipol sometimes playfully pointed a gun at Ananda who sternly told him not to, has given rise to a far more persuasive theory, which continues to be held by most Westerners.

2. It is that Bhoomipol visited the sick Ananda and while they were playing with the .45 he accidentally fired it. No one ever gave more authority to this idea than Bhoomipol himself, by his extraordinary change from gaiety throughout his seventeen years preceding Ananda‟s death to unsmiling gravity in the following fourteen.

3. Before the fatal shot, the Royal Nanny and Bhoomipol were in and out of the playroom and Bhoomipol’s bedroom at the same time. She was in the bedroom putting away movie films when she heard the shot and rushed out, while Bhoomipol said he heard not a shot but a shout which drew him from the playroom. This difference is as odd as their lack of reference to each other in their respective testimonies; indeed Bhoomipol even said he saw no one. Moreover he said the shout drew him out to the front porch where, directly along the front corridor to Ananda‟s study, he met the lady-in-waiting. If indeed the study door was for some reason left unlocked, it is theoretically possible for him to have gone this way to Ananda, and after the accident run out by the same door, unremarked by the two pages in the back corridor outside the dressing-room but encountering the lady-in-waiting.

4. These facts may mean that Bhoomipol got the pistol out as he stood next to his brother‟s bed, playfully pointed it, accidentally fired it, and after an instant of stupefied horror let it drop and ran out: the pistol could then have been where it was found. Now however unfavourable all this is to Bhoomipol, how much more so does it become if the theory were not one of accident but murder. The notion that he visited Ananda then tends to indicate sinister intent, else he would have used the dressing-room entrance where the two pages were stationed (to his knowledge, since he had spoken to them there). A clear motive can be presumed, the ambition to be King.

5. Add the unreliability of his testimony in that he said he never heard the shot though the Royal Nanny did, that he never saw anyone though he could hardly have missed seeing the Nanny if he was where he said he was, and that he never noticed where Ananda‟s right (that is, firing) arm was though everyone else did. Add, finally, his conversation that night with the Royal Physician, when besides asking him not to leave him he spoke in favour of the accident theory although he should have known that the .45‟s safety device, if not Ananda‟s habitual caution, rendered the theory highly improbable.

6. The resulting tally of suspicion is such that had Prince Bhoomipol been charged with regicide, and precisely the same reasoning and attitude been applied by the judges as they adopted in convicting the three accused, he must certainly have been condemned. But strip it down and what are we left with but faint shadows and surmise. The same simple reason that makes the impartial observer reject the case against them must also acquit Bhoomipol: there is absolutely no evidential link between him and the shooting.


Whoever reads the aforementioned passages would be led to understand that King Rama IX was involved in causing of the death of King Rama VIII, either by accident or intentionally. Therefore such statements represent defamation of the King to a third person, in a manner that discredits and creates hatred for the King.

FACT on The Devil’s Discus

21 01 2011

Regular readers of the Freedom Against Censorship Thailand blog would be aware of C.J. Hinke’s passion for the Rayne Kruger book on the death of King Ananda Mahidol, The Devil’s Discus. Much discussed and apparently still banned in Thailand, it is a classic account of regicide (also an account by a British pathologist). FACT now has an exclusive interview with Prudence Leith, Kruger’s widow, including an extract from her forthcoming book. Worth a read.

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