KYOTO – Lese-majeste convict Surachai Danwattananusorn (aka Surachai Saedan) has been granted a royal pardon and was released from prison on Oct. 4 after serving three years. Surachai was also a leader of a group called Red Siam, formed in the aftermath of the military coup of 2006 that ousted elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Surachai was found guilty of offending the monarchy in a series of speeches he gave at the red-shirt protests from 2008 to 2011 and was sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison. Currently Thailand, where most Thais claim to have love and respect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has the most severe punishment for lese-majeste in the world.
A large number of red-shirt supporters and rights activists showed up at Bangkok’s Remand Prison to welcome the freedom of Surachai. But he is not the last prisoner charged with lese-majeste. Several of them have still been detained until they admit their guilt in insulting the monarchy; then a royal pardon could be considered.
The situation in Thailand regarding lese-majeste has not improved. Indeed, it has threatened freedom of expression in a country where the monarchy has long dominated Thai political space.
Used lately as a weapon to undermine political opponents, lese-majeste law represents a grand burden on Thai democratization. State agencies have played a role in aggravating the lese-majeste situation, supposedly to display their loyalty to the monarchy.
For example, the Thai Foreign Ministry has recently shifted its orientation from promoting good relations with foreign countries to defending the monarchy at all cost. Since the military coup of 2006, almost all Thai state agencies have been immensely politicized. The Foreign Ministry is no exception.
The situation worsened following the advent of Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, former ambassador and a known anti-Thaksin figure. Kasit embarked on prioritizing the need to protect the monarchy from criticisms among those who lived outside Thailand. It was not surprising considering the alliance Kasit had forged with the royal establishment.
However, what is more startling is the fact that the Yingluck Shinawatra government has also endorsed a pro-monarchy policy. This is reflected in the current foreign policy that targets those criticizing the monarchy, Thais or foreigners, abroad.
For a while now, the Foreign Ministry has set up a unit within the Information Department designed to monitor those who live outside Thailand who may violate the lese-majeste law. The Foreign Ministry has created its own “blacklist” in which the alleged violators of lese-majeste law will be charged once they set foot in Thailand.
Possibly once a month, the unit, led by the director general of the Information Department, holds an internal meeting with the army in order to discuss strategies in the protection of the monarchy, compare their blacklists and, most importantly, determine who to be charged and how. The process of identifying enemies of the monarchy is somewhat confidential — they will not know that they are put in the list until they arrive in Thailand.
Quite often, the army’s representatives are more anxious to press charges against any enemies abroad. Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry is a little more cautious about the process, recognizing that “once it ties the knot, it will have to explain this to the outside world.”
Typically the meeting between the Foreign Ministry and the army covers discussions on any upcoming events overseas which are related to the monarchy and following the movements of the so-called enemies of monarchy abroad.
On many occasions, representatives of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) are invited to participate in the discussions. Their presence is important, not only in providing intelligence information but also in creating “myths” about anti-monarchy movements outside Thailand.
For example, the Foreign Ministry and the army rely heavily on information from the NIA regarding anti-monarchy movements in the United States.
When respected Thai history professor Thongchai Winichakul of the University of Wisconsin-Madison became the first Thai to head the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), a former director of the NIA produced a public article in Thai to connect the existence of anti-monarchy movements in the U.S. with Thongchai’s AAS presidency.
It was also alleged that American anti-monarchy lobbyists worked intimately with the AAS to turn this academic platform into an organization that aims to overthrow the Thai monarchy. On top of this, the NIA linked a particular panel at the previous AAS Meeting in San Diego on “The Monarchy in Post-Bhumibol Thailand” with the alleged conspiracy in the U.S.
Accordingly the Foreign Ministry instructed its embassy in Washington and its consulate in Los Angeles to provide more information and to monitor the AAS closely. A representative from the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles was obviously among the attendees at the San Diego panel and took a lot of photos of panelists. A report on the result of the panel discussion was written and sent back to the Foreign Ministry headquarters on Sri Ayutthaya Road. Some panelists have been put on the list. One may never know when any charges will be made against them.
At this critical juncture in Thailand which has undergone a deep political polarization, instead of de-politicizing issues related to the monarchy, state agencies have done the opposite. Thai diplomats have been told to defend the royal institution fiercely, even when they have to lie, cover up and twist facts. The battle against critics of the monarchy is likely to become more brutal as Thailand approaches the end of the current reign.