Release the students, return power to the people

28 06 2015

The Nation reports that 53 “leading academics and activists yesterday demanded that 14 arrested student activists be immediately released and called on the public to stand up to the junta.”

This call came as the military dictatorship downplayed the possibility of the students each receiving 7 years in jail under Articles 116 and 83 of the Criminal Code.

Army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr, who has repeatedly stated that he knows but refuses to name a mysterious “mastermind” he alleges is “behind” the students and warned their supporters:

If you direct them in the wrong direction, disturbing the country’s peace and order, I warn you stop it. We have identified you all. Most people do not approve of your actions because they want the country to be peaceful.

Like others in the junta, he’s either delusional or a liar and probably both. As usually happens under this deranged leadership, we can expect some arrest and a claim of a network and plot, with a likelihood of lese majeste accusations and undefined threats to national security.

Meanwhile, the academics and activists, who are “calling themselves People Behind the Neo Democracy Movement, issued a statement to demand that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) return power to the people.”

These supporters of students and democracy “gathered at Suan Ngern Mee Ma, a training centre that served as a shelter for the student activists before their arrest on Friday.”

In a statement, they “emphasised their stance in opposing … a dictatorship and the ‘selfishness and ineffectiveness’ of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha [The Dictator General Prayuth Chan-ocha].”

The Nation identified the “most prominent” of these activists as “social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, political scientist Kasian Tejapira, former Thammasat University rector Charnvit Kasetsiri, and noted writer Suchat Sawatsri.” It reports that “[o]ther signatories … include Chulalongkorn University political scientist Puangthong Pawakapan, Thammasat University anthologist Yukti Mukdavijit, political scientist Pongkwan Sawasdipakdi, and Same Sky magazine editor Thanapol Eiwsakul.”

They asked: “What kind of society is the NCPO [military junta] leading Thailand to? Calls for democracy and justice using non-violence have become criminalised…”.

The arrested students have repeatedly “denied a claim by the authorities that political groups were behind their moves.” They declared: “There is no need for us to prove anything. We don’t have anyone behind us.”

They also rejected the ridiculous paternalism and authoritarianism of the military dictatorship. They stated: “Prayut[h]’s administration is scared of opponents’ opinions because they are well aware that they can’t run the country…. They are not capable of solving problems. But they persist to stay to preserve their own power and interests amid the national calamity.”

The students called on the “people to come out and call on the junta to return their power…”.

Dopes, censorship and repression

21 10 2014

The military brass has again declared its loyalty to its boss. Why these dolts bother beats us, but there’s always a chance that one of the dopes gets sick of the dopes above him and tries to change things. But declaring loyalty means nothing for when they do decide to act, they are unlikely to declare it. What they did declare was: “We not only give our support and encouragement to the prime minister, but we will also translate his orders into actions. We will do our best.” Their “best” may be everyone else’s “worst” as the military brass engages in a political feeding frenzy.

At Prachatai it is reported that the military has “ordered the editor of anti-establishment socio-political Same Sky journal to delete a Facebook status which states the military’s attempt to censor the publishing house.”

The military ordered editor Thanapol Eawsakul “to delete the Facebook status on the conversation with Prajak Kongkirati, a renown[ed] political scientist from Thammasat University, at the annual Book Fair in central Bangkok.” Apparently the dunderheads in the military “mistook the fan meeting [with author Prajak] as [a] political seminar and requested the book fair organizer to videotape … the event which the book fair organizer declined.”

The deleted post “stated that the night before the opening of the fair, the military officials came to search the Fah Deaw Kan’s booth, claiming that some of the books have contents that could be deemed as defaming the …. Thai monarchy.” We deleted a word at … to protect our readers from royalist nonsense.

It is reported that “Same Sky … deleted the status and said it was forced to delete the status because the military felt ‘upset’.”

Also at Prachatai, it is reported that the military arrested and detained a red shirt who attended Apiwan Wiriyachai’s funeral. Military officers arrested Nueng Katesakul for allegedly taking part “in the anti-coup protest at the Victory Monument on 28 June…”.

The repression and censorship continues.

Targeting dissidents

8 07 2014

From the Asian Human Rights Commission:

July 8, 2014

A Statement from the Asian Human Rights Commission

THAILAND: Re-arrest of editor and human rights defender by junta


The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is gravely concernedto have learned that Thanapol Eawsakul, writer, human rights defender, and editor of Fa Diew Kan (Same Sky) journal and publishing house, has been re-arrested and is being held by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). The conditions of his re-arrest and detention are arbitrary and a clear derogation of the Government of Thailand’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The AHRC views his re-arrest and detention, which the junta has claimed is a period of “attitude adjustment” in relation to his social media postings, as an ominous indication of the ongoing crisis of human rights following the recent coup in Thailand.

On 22 May2014, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the NCPO took power and abrogated the constitution in Thailand. During the first six weeks of rule by the junta, there have been severe restrictions placed on freedom of expression and political freedom, ongoing formal and informal summons to report to the junta, extensive use of arbitrary detention, the activation of military courts to process dissidents, and the creation of a general climate of fear detrimental to human rights and the rule of law. Under the terms of martial law, which were put in place two days prior to the coup, soldiers can detain and interrogate anyone for up to seven days without having to provide evidence of wrongdoing or bring formal charges. People arrested can be held at irregular places of detention, including permanent or temporary military bases or other sites designated as places of detention. Detention in irregular places means that the possibility for rights violations, including torture, forced disappearance and extrajudicial execution is greatly increased.

While the junta has refused to provide full details of the number of people detained and the places of detention, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a group of lawyers and human rights defenders who formed following the coup to redress human rights violations caused by the junta’s rule, compiled statistics on the one-month anniversary of the coup. TLHR noted that during the first month of rule by the junta, at least 454 persons were publicly summoned to report themselves in Bangkok, and at least 57 were informally summoned in the provinces. The full report can be read in English here and in Thai here. While the junta has repeatedly claimed that those who are summoned and then held are not being detained, but are instead being offered “accommodation” and “attitude adjustment,” the penalty for not responding to the summons is possible processing within the military court system and a punishment of a prison sentence of up to two years and/or a fine of up to 40,000 baht.

Since the first days after the coup was launched, the NCPO has explicitly targeted dissident thinkers, academics, human rights defenders, journalists, and artists. Thanapol Eawsakul is a long-time editor, writer, and long-time human rights defender who has consistently worked to create space for the voices of those marginalized and repressed in Thai society, and has been among those targeted by the junta since the beginning. He was first arrested with several other people during a peaceful protest against the coup on 23 May and detained for one night at the Signal Department of the Royal Thai Army (AHRC-STM-099-2014). Then, he was included on the list of persons named in Order No. 5/2557 [2014] on 23 May, which was broadcast on the radio and television and demanded that those named themselves to the Army Club on Thewet Road by 4 pm on 24 May (AHRC-STM-100-2014). As he was already in custody at that time, the authorities transferred him to the Army Club, and he was then detained for an additional seven days, the maximum permitted under martial law. Like all others released from detention by the NCPO, under Announcement No. 39/2557 [2014], Thanapol was compelled to sign a statement agreeing to a number of conditions, including that he would not exercise his fundamental human rights to free expression or assembly, or leave country without permission of the junta. The conditions of release reinforce the essentially arbitrary character of the process of detention, since they refer to no law and are issued under the exclusive authority of the junta.

According to information provided by TLHR, Prachatai, and Khao Sod, on the morning of 5 July, Thanapol Eawsakul received a phone call from an unidentified military officer who requested that he come to Coffee Zelection, a café on Phaholyothin Soi 7 in Bangkok for a conversation. He complied, and shortly after his arrival, a military officer out of uniform took him into custody in an unmarked private car and then took him first to the King’s Guard, 2nd Cavalry Division in the Sanam Pao area and then to the Police Crime Suppression Division for further detention. On 7 July, an official from the Department of the Judge Advocate General in the Ministry of Defense claimed that Thanapol’s Facebook postings constitute a violation of the conditions of his release. He has not been formally charged, and the same official has publicly claimed that he may be released as soon as 9 July as he is being detained for “attitude adjustment” and he will be released as soon as this process is complete.

The continued arbitrary detention, use of military courts (See the AHRC’s letter on military courts to the United Nations Special Procedure mandate holders on 2 June 2014: AHRC-OLT-006-2014), and constriction of freedom of expression by the NCPO are clear derogations of Thailand’s responsibilities as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In particular, both instances of the detention of Thanapol Eawsakul are a violation of the obligations under article 9, which provides specifically that, “1. Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law. 2. Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him. 3. Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release…” The AHRC would like to emphasize that there is no legal basis for the detention of citizens without charge for “attitude adjustment.” This is an instance of the repressive and unchecked use of power by the junta.

While the junta has claimed, through the use of martial law, that the current social and political situation represents a public emergency in which the derogation of responsibilities is permitted, the AHRC’s assessment is that no such situation exists in Thailand at this time. Despite the country’s ongoing political unrest, much of which dates to the prior coup in September 2006, it is beholden on the civilian authorities to deal with that unrest in accordance with ordinary procedures. Despite the assurances of authorities that they will respect human rights, the consistent experience in Thailand has been that where special laws have been used, people affected by the laws have encountered a corresponding increase in cases of arbitrary detention, torture and denial of due process rights. Nothing in the present circumstances offers reassurances that the same will not occur in the vacuum of protections for human rights created by martial law and the absence of a vibrant constitution.

The Asian Human Rights Commission unequivocally condemns the coup in the strongest terms and wishes to express grave concern about the rapid decline of human rights protections it has engendered. The AHRC calls on the NCPO to immediately release Thanapol Eawsakul and all citizens being arbitrarily detained without charge and to cease creating public terror throughissuing summons to report to the military, sending private letters of summons, and detaining individuals for “attitude adjustment” after requesting a meeting on another pretext.Further, the AHRC calls on the NCPO to recognize that tolerance for different ideas and dissent are part of building a polity grounded in human rights and the rule of law. To defend human rights and think differently than the junta are not crimes.

For us, against us

8 07 2014

The lines of demarcation between the junta and its opponents are reasonably clear, as two recent event demonstrate.

If you are an ally of the junta, you get special treatment.

Bangkok Pundit recently suggested that the massive Cambodian migrant worker “exodus was so quick that it has no doubt caused political problems in Cambodia, [and] … forced Hun Sen to cooperate with the junta. (Veera’s release?).” Veera is Veera Somkwamkid, the People’s Alliance for Democracy-associate ultra-nationalist member of the Thai Patriot Network, who was detained in Cambodia following a border incursion in 2011. When he was released a few days ago, all of the old hyper-nationalist, yellow shirts got together for a party to welcome back their “hero.”

As the Bangkok Post reports, the party was arranged at the at the Royal Turf Club, where General Boonlert Kaewprasit was host. Boonlert is a favorite of the military and royalist elite not least because he was one of those who managed the revival of anti-democrat street protests for the PAD lot prior to the mobilizations that became the Suthep Thaugsuban anti-democrats, who paved the way for the coup…. and the rest is history, as they say.

The military dictatorship became worried, after the fact, that the welcome party might be seen as “double standards,” not that such claims seem to bother them in other spheres. The party was attended not just by Boonlert, but a bunch of others from the military and the anti-Thaksin Shinawatra movement including “Gen Preecha Iamsuphan, former senators Prasarn Maruekpitak, Khamnoon Sitthisamarn and Rosana Tositrakul, national artist Naowarat Pongpaiboon and other activists.”

So Veera and Boonlert were called in by the junta. The result was a bit of hugging and and a public reprimand. Then, as the Post reports it, after a couple of hours, they were “allowed to go home after a meeting with a high level officer of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).” They even went on television to “explain”:

Gen Boonlert said in an interview with television reporters afterwards that Gen Paiboon Khumchaya, the assistant army chief and NCPO’s chief of legal and justice affairs section, asked him and Mr Veera to let the NCPO know before conducting any activity which may be construed as violating the NCPO’s orders including the ban on a political gatherings.

They agreed to comply with the request, Gen Boonlert said.

If you are seen as an opponent of the coup, you get very different treatment. Boonlert and Veera get mainstream media coverage for the party and its aftermath. Most of those present, as yellow shirt supporters of the coup, go about their business, political and otherwise. But not opponents. Khaosod reports the second detention of Thanapol Eawsakul, editor of Fa Diaw Kan.

A “senior army officer” says that the editor is having his attitude “re-adjusted.” Why? Because of “critical Facebook comments violated a condition he signed before being released from his first bout of military detention. That release form barred Mr. Thanapol from participating in politics or expressing any opinions that ‘incite unrest’.” Should the “military decide to charge Mr. Thanapol with violating the NCPO’s release conditions, the activist will be tried in military court and could face up to two years in prison.”

Compare the re-education and multiple detention of an activist writing on Facebook with the military junta’s freeing of Veera and the treatment of their friends Boonlert and Veera. This is not about double standards but about the nature of the military regime.

Updated: Meeting the junta

6 07 2014

There have already been several accounts of meetings with the men sent out by the junta to round up the people they consider opponents. A reader has alerted us to one such encounter in the south. We found the account by Hara Shintaro at Deep South Watch to be illuminating. Not only does it show that the military is remarkably incompetent, it also indicates that the military dictatorship is attempting to settle old scores.

The military has been an abject failure in dealing with problems in the south. It is unable to comprehend complex issues due to the extreme hierarchy it maintains, its politicization rather than professionalization and because of its adherence to feudal trappings and ideologies.

PPT won’t set out the report in detail here as it seems that it is widely accessible.

Update: Prachatai reports that the military junta has again arrested Thanapol Eawsakul, editor of Fa Diaw Kan or Same Sky magazine, “for another seven days stating that Thanapol violated his release order by posting messages deemed violating the junta’s order on Facebook.” Military operatives called him to “a talk” at a cafe on Phaholyothin Soi 7, and several plainclothes officers arrested him there. He is said to have been “taken to the King’s Guard, 2nd Cavalry Division in Sanam Pao area. Later he was taken to the Police’s Crime Suppression Division where he will be detained under the Martial Law for seven days.”

THe same report tells us that “academics from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science Assoc. Prof. Puangthong Pawakapan and Asst. Prof. Pitch Pongsawat were also invited for talks on July 3 and 4 and released on the same day…. The two academics led a group called Assembly for the Defense of Democracy which held anti-coup campaign and advocated for election prior to the May 22 coup.”

Arresting and threatening for the monarchy

8 06 2014

For a while, Thailand’s military dictatorship pretended that it was something else. Junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha pretended that he was “forced” into his illegal seizure of state power by “violence,” both real and pending. For a couple of days, as the military thugs called in political leaders from all sides, they pretended to be “even-handed,” just trying to “solve” the country’s “political problems.”

Naturally enough, PPT found such political games hard to swallow, but there was some media credibility given to these unlikely claims from the despots in green. Yet where were the detentions of the old men like Prasong Soonsiri who has been planning, boosting and supporting every single anti-government street protest since the People’s Alliance for Democracy was formed?

The real target was and remains the leadership of the red shirt movement, activists and intellectuals the military bosses believe support them, and everyone associated with allegedly anti-monarchy movements. That latter category apparently includes anyone who may have even given a little thought to reforming the draconian lese majeste law.

We now have a better idea of the methods and manner of the interrogations and pressures exerted on those called in.

At Khaosod, we are told of the military detention of Chiang Mai academic Kengkij Kitirianglarp. Surrounded “by a dozen security officers who were interrogating him,” he was pressured to provide information with what looks to PPT to be a clear intent to map an anti-monarchy movement, perhaps adding to their earlier manufacture of just such a chart.Kengkij

The academic stated that “he suspected the NCPO [the junta] summoned him and the 14 others … because they were considered potential violators of Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws.” He added:

Some officers actually told me they wanted to establish links we had with people who produced content [violating lese majeste]…. I believe they will summon the people who allegedly produced those materials in future announcements.

His interrogation “started with an army officer taking a survey of Mr. Kengkit’s opinions on the monarchy, lese majeste laws, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political clan, and the military takeover on 22 May.”

A useful story at the Wall Street Journal examines the junta’s “stepping up their self-appointed role as guardians of the country’s revered [sic.] monarchy following last month’s coup d’état by threatening to try anyone who breaks the strict laws on criticizing the royal family in a military court.”

This is said to be “aimed at boosting the generals’ legitimacy” following the putsch.

David Streckfuss is cited, arguing that the junta “is trying to build a case that there are widespread violations of lèse majestè, part of what it might argue is an antimonarchy movement.” That’s true, but it is also a case that has been central to each of the anti-Thaksin Shinawatra movement since 2005. In other words, the military is doing the work of the movements that prompted Thailand’s second monarchist coup in 8 years.

Junta spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp is quoted in the article as saying that “stamping out illegal discussion of the monarchy” is a way to “get the country in good order and move forward.” In the way of all fascist regimes, creating “order” requires division.

The junta says it “is responding to public demand that it defend the monarchy from criticism.” He means the demand from right-wing anti-democrats.

The junta makes claims that is “uncovering a series of what it calls lèse majestè rings, where suspects allegedly gathered to view banned DVDs and other material.”

Thanapol Eawsakul, who was questioned and released by the junta, makes the obvious point that “the army appeared unusually interested in anyone discussing the monarchy’s role in the country.”

The reasons for this extremist military monarchism are several. For one thing, even if there wasn’t a succession crisis, and the evidence for it necessarily remained pretty thin given palace secrecy, it is now clear that a determined few have managed to create (at the very least) an impression that there is a real crisis. That impression itself poses a very real challenge to the monarchy. Related, Wikileaks cables showed that there really was a lot of palace political scheming and plotting and offered an account that both reinforced rumors and provided some evidence for the view that there is a succession problem.

A second reason relates to perception that the palace was deeply involved with the planning and instigation of the 2006 coup. The palace intervened to overthrow of an elected government apparently believing that it was a government rejected by the public and made the political (mis)calculation that its intervention would be welcomed.

A third reason is the known efforts by the palace, and associated with Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, to manipulate the military. Since he stepped down from the prime ministership in 1988, Prem has sought to manage every single promotion in the officer corps in a manner that maintained and strengthened the attachment of the top brass to the palace and king. Generally, that manipulation has produced a royalist military leadership that refuses to acknowledge the possibility of civilian control under elected governments.

A fourth reason is that the elite that has long managed and controlled Thailand  rightly considers that its economic power is constructed and maintained by a social and political structure that has two keystones, the military and the monarchy.

We could go on, but the point is clear: for a variety of reasons, the ideological core of the coup and its junta is the monarchy. This fact suggests that the monarchy and the system it represents – the old order – can only be maintained through massive repression, the control of the state’s coercive arms, and extensive censorship.


Releasing some, charging with lese majeste

30 05 2014

The lese majeste dragnet is finely meshed and large. It is recently reported that Pravit Rojanaphruk, a reporter with The Nation, and Thanapol Eawsakul, editor of Fa Diaw Kan (or Same Sky) magazine, and Surapot Thaweesak, a lecturer from Suan Dusit Rajabhat University were released from military detention today.

However, Apichart Pongsawat, who was arrested with Thanapol, “was to be escorted by soldiers to the Criminal Court to face a lese majeste charge brought against him before the May 22 military coup. ”


Updated: Opposition

23 05 2014

One piece of optimistic news in the depths of the illegal military coup is that opposition has begun immediately.

Back in 2006, the dominant narrative in the early days following the military coup was of the “good coup.” Then, with Ji Ungpakorn helping to organize, a handful of brave protesters opposed the coup. This occurred a few days after the coup.

This time, the demonstrations have been larger and more immediate. Prachatai states that “Hundreds of protesters gathered around 5pm in front of the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center on Pathumwan Rd, opposing the coup which tool place Thursday evening. A number of soldiers stand nearby to control the situation.”

Prachatai has pictures and there are plenty on social media. Others have organized opposition in the North and the Northeast.

How will the military react? Ji paid with a military-sponsored attack that saw a lese majeste accusation, with him fleeing to England. We expect this military leadership to be harder-edged, and we also expect a bunch of lese majeste accusations from them against red shirts.

The arrest of Fa Diaw Kan editor Thanapol Eawsakul suggests that things are likely to deteriorate for those considered opponents. Will this arrest result in a lese majeste charge?

Thanapol arrested

Update: Thanapol arrested with 4-5 others at the anti-coup rally mentioned in the Prachatai story.

Further updated: Nitirat academic attacked

29 02 2012

Leading Nitirat academic Worachet Pakeerut was set upon, punched and injured by two unidentified men in a parking lot at Thammasat University. The Nation reports that Worachet was talking to a fellow academic from Mahidol University “when two men sneaked from behind to deliver several punches in his face.” He commented: “I was hit and everything happened so suddenly that I could not even remember the profile of my attackers…”.

A Nation photo

Metropolitan Police are said to be investigating but “had not drawn conclusion on the motive behind the attack.” PPT thinks the motive is as clear as day: Worachet was attacked as a royalist warning to him and Nitirat to shut up. The kind of intimidatory tactic is one that has been commonly used in the past, most usually by dark elements within the security forces.

Interestingly, editor of Fa Diaw Kan magazine Thanapol Eawsakul witnessed the attack and saw “two attackers fleeing by a motorcycle.” That motorcycle was also seen by activist Sombat Boonngamanong who “tweeted that the motorcycle license plate was Mo Tho 684.” That should make it somewhat easier for police, assuming that they actually want to track down the aggressors.

This kind of attack is reminiscent of the dark days of authoritarian regimes, usually associated with the military when engaged in regime-maintaining violence, and is very worrying as there have been earlier instances of hate speech targeting Nitirat and Worachet. The nature of this kind of political attack is exemplified in The Nation’s own report, which is misleadingly stated:

Worachet is the core leader of Nitirat academic group spearheading a campaign to amend the lese majeste law. He is seen as a controversial figure due to his outspokenness in opposing the coup. His political views are often favouring the pro-Thaksin [Shinawatra] camp.

In fact, in earlier days, Worachet was a leading anti-Thaksin critic writing chapters in books attacking Thaksin edited by Chirmsak Pinthong. He was also anti-coup in 2006. That he has now suggested discussions of reforms of the draconian and internationally condemned lese majeste law, sees some – and apparently The Nation reporter and editors – as somehow simply “pro-Thaksin.” This kind of loose and/or politicized reporting makes the media culpable in political violence.

Update 1: Readers should look at Prachatai’s stories following this event. The first story refers to the despicable comments of ASTV/Manager readers. In fact, none of this is surprising and is pretty much par for the course. The second story is a statement from Human Rights Lawyers Association, Union for Civil Liberty, Human Rights and Development Foundation, Campaign Committee for Human Rights, Environmental Litigation for the Wants, Cross-Cultural Foundation, Center for Protection and Recovery of Local Community Rights, Community Resources Center deploring the attack. They state that they are “gravely concerned that the reason behind the attack could stem from the lecturer’s taking the lead as a core member of the Nitirat Group.” They add that the incident will “spur a climate of fear in society.” Of course, that is exactly what the attack is meant to do. The groups condemn the attack.

Update 2: Both the Bangkok Post and The Nation report that the two men who attacked Worachet have surrendered to the police. The “twin brothers told investigators that they are members of the anti-Nitirat group that opposes any move to amend Section 112 of the Criminal Code, the lese majeste law.” Meanwhile, in the Bangkok Post it is reported that: “Members of the Nitirat law group at Thammasat University say they will continue with their activities to disseminate their opinions, in the spirit of academic principle, despite the attack…”. The Thammasat University rector “condemned the attackers…”.

Toronto Star on monarchy

7 08 2011

PPT missed this story about a week ago. By Bill Schiller, the article is entitled “King’s failing health, and his $30B fortune, puts Thailand in jeopardy.” We have decided to simply reproduce it here, with some emphasis and brief comments added:

Towering high in the heavens overlooking the courtyard of Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital stands an illuminated portrait of Thailand’s King Bhumibol, with a garland of dazzling neon lights proclaiming, “Long Live The King.”

But how long does the king have to live?

On his own private floor in this hospital on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, the 83-year-old king has battled Parkinson’s, depression and a series of strokes since being admitted here in September 2009.

Now his days appear numbered, a fact that has many in this nation of 68 million worried.

Stock markets have tumbled on rumours of his death. As recently as May another round of rumours sent foreign diplomats scrambling for confirmation.

Days later the royal household rolled the monarch out in a wheelchair, calming nerves.

The longest reigning monarch in the world — he was crowned in 1950 — King Bhumibol Adulyadej is also the world’s richest by far. His $30 billion in treasure makes Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s $18 billion look modest by comparison; Queen Elizabeth’s estimated $500 million seems like pocket change.

But what is more important is this: although he is a constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol is worshipped and adored as a demi-god here, a semi-supernatural force that binds the nation. [PPT: it is clear that this is no longer true, if it ever was; it is the palace propaganda position]

When he goes, many fear an eruption could occur in this ever-fractious country, increasingly known for its political street battles.

“It will be a gigantic moment,” says Paul Handley, author of the definitive and unauthorized biography, The King Never Smiles.

“No one really knows what will happen. And that’s why people are frightened.” Handley’s book, which is banned in Thailand but widely available in photocopy form on the street, chronicles a dysfunctional royal family that would rival any from Shakespeare’s best historical plays: a good king, the plotting wife, a flawed son who is the heir apparent — who bizarrely made his pet dog an air marshal in the Thai Air Force — and a beloved princess who, according to sources, will flee to China the moment her father dies.

Perhaps most daringly, Handley deals with Thailand’s most sensitive subject of all: did the current king, as a young man, kill his older brother Anand — then reigning king — in a 1946 shooting accident prior to taking the throne?

The very fact that Handley deals with the issue has ensured that he is unlikely to set foot in Thailand without fear of arrest. [PPT: Handley dealt with it but didn’t come up with anything new]

Critical or probing questions regarding the king and his family are not taken lightly.

Still, what will happen to Bhumibol’s fortune and the future of the monarchy upon his death are questions weighing on everyone’s mind here.

Few Thais have known any other monarch, and as the country approaches its most critical moment in more than 60 years, one might expect a national discussion in which succession and the security of the nation are carefully considered.

But that’s not what is happening.

Today, Thailand’s powerful lèse majesté law, which makes it illegal to insult the royal family, has made any discussion about the royals a potentially dangerous activity — one that can land people in jail for 15 years.

David Streckfuss, the recognized authority on lèse majesté and author of Truth on Trial in Thailand, “in terms of punishment, the world has never seen anything like this in a century or so.”

The law “has become essentially a treason law,” he says, “almost like high treason, but without capital punishment.”

Since the beginning of last year the police, the palace and loyalist politicians — backed by the military — have been cracking down hard, trying to quell a conversation about the future of the monarchy and vowing to “protect” it by any means.

Those pushing for a more fully-fledged democracy — the so-called “Red Shirts” who align themselves with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — say lèse majesté has been used for partisan purposes, to support the “Yellow Shirts” or royalist camp.

And few believe the recent election of a new government led by Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck, will bring any lightening of enforcement.

Charges of lèse majesté were once rare, but last year they skyrocketed to 478.

“This is not really a law to protect the king anymore,” observes magazine editor and publisher Thanapol Eawsakul, who has been charged under the law but never successfully prosecuted. “It is being used to protect political interests.”

Eawsakul says if the monarchy as an institution were transformed or even ended on the king’s death, much would be at stake for the network of royals, bureaucrats, business people and hangers-on who rely on the royal family for power and privilege.

This is not the way good king Bhumibol’s reign was supposed to end.

Born near Boston in 1927, where his father Prince Mahidol was studying medicine at Harvard, Bhumibol returned to Thailand in 1950, from his own studies in Switzerland, to be crowned Rama IX.

Bhumibol had brought back with him a radiant 17-year-old Thai woman he’d met in Switzerland, married her and made her Queen Sirikit.

The palace went to work building a cult around the king and his Buddha-like personality, involving him mainly in development projects and building the royal brand into Thai daily life: News of the monarch and his family was to be carried in daily newspapers; dedicated nightly television broadcasts featured royal news; and in theatres, movie-goers had to stand at attention as a film portraying the king as the essence of all that is good in Thailand aired with the national anthem.

These routines continue to this day.

Yet, today there is no shortage of defamation and anger afoot against the royal family inside Thailand, some of it pointedly directed at the king as well as Queen Sirikit. And it seems to be growing.

In Bangkok you can acquire DVDs with cartoons encouraging the use of the guillotine against the royals; view a lengthy segment of the king, dancing and tipsy, at a what appears to be a royal birthday party; and see an infamous video of heir apparent Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 59, with his third wife Princess Srirasmi — naked except for a g-string — singing “Happy Birthday” to their miniature poodle Fufu for a rolling camera.

It was at a 2007 dinner with the prince and princess, that departing U.S Ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce learned that Fufu had been awarded the rank of Air Marshall in the Thai Air Force.

With the prince in line to succeed his father, some advisers in the palace are concerned if not alarmed.

Queen Sirikit, meanwhile, has seen her influence grow steadily over the past decade and enjoys major support from a loyal Thai military. But she has also had a polarizing effect in Thailand’s political ferment.

Unlike the king who has always appeared, at least publicly, to be above politics, the queen signalled her open support for the Yellow Shirt loyalists in 2009, when she attended a funeral for a young Yellow Shirt protester.

Someone who has always spoken openly is the country’s most famous social thinker and well-known Buddhist, Sulak Sivaraksa.

A long-time friend of Canadian writer Jon Ralston Saul and former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, Sulak declares himself “loyal” to the king and stresses he does not support violence.

“But loyalty demands dissent,” he observes, seated in his lush garden, where he has lived for 60 years. “Without dissent you cannot be a free man, you see.”

Despite his gentle demeanour, Sulak, even at 78, is accustomed to speaking truth to power, and he has been charged for it under the lèse majesté law.

Once close to the king, in fact part of “the inner circle,” he says, he had a falling out when he rejected the palace’s old official line that the king’s older brother had been assassinated.

“The truth is the present king killed his brother — accidentally. I’ve not only said it openly, I’ve published it,” he says. He was charged and last year let off, apparently on instructions from the king.

Looking to the future Sulak sees the end of an era.

“To put it negatively, I think the monarchy will end with the demise of the present King.

“If the new king is willing to be a puppet, say like the Cambodian king, it will survive that way,” he notes. “But no longer as a real monarchy…”.