CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND – On Dec. 1, I was invited by Yale University to give a lecture on the topic “From Bhumibol to Vajiralongkorn: The Neo-Royalism Ideology and the Future of the Thai Monarchy.” Toward the end of my lecture, two hyper-royalists, a middle-aged Thai man and woman, stood up and interrupted my talk. The man cursed at me, calling me a “son of a bitch.” He said that my lecture was “full of s—-” and that I was not Thai.
In many ways, the heckling at Yale symbolized the deep political crisis in Thailand, which has centered on the position of the monarchy at the twilight of what is seen as the magical reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The man and woman could have argued that they were protecting the dignity of the king. But at the same time, their action also exposed their sense of anxiety about the future of the monarchy without the charismatic king — and indeed the future of Thailand.
Emerging from that context, it seems evident that the crux of the current Thai political crisis is straightforward: The military staged a coup on May 22, 2014, mainly to take control of the upcoming royal succession. This important event will determine the future of Thailand. The military, during this transitional period, has continued to exploit the revered institution, not only to defend the political interest of the monarchy but that of its own.
Over a year now since the latest coup, the military has apparently failed to restore peace and stability back to Thai society. On the contrary, the military government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has further deepened the rift among members of society, among other things, by incessantly hunting down those with different political opinions. Among these targets, critics of the monarchy are dealt with ever more harshly. And the situation has become ever more absurd.
Last month, a man faced a jail term for insulting a dog. Thanakorn Siripaiboon’s crime was to make a sarcastic comment on Facebook about Thongdaeng, a much-loved street mongrel who was rescued by King Bhumibol over a decade ago. Thanakorn, who has also been accused of sedition for sharing allegations of corruption in a military construction project, was charged with lese majeste for his remark about the dog, bringing ludicrousness to a new height as Thailand approaches the end of the Bhumibol era.
Lese majeste, or the crime of injury to royalty, is defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which states that defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the king, queen or regent are punishable by three to 15 years in prison. Since the coup of 2006, cases of lese majeste have been skyrocketing. And recently the law has been extended to cover the protection of past kings, other members of the royal family, and now a dog.
The latest case involving Thongdeang can be interpreted in two ways. First, now toward the end of the Bhumibol period, a sense of nervousness is increasingly being felt not just by the Thai public, but in particular by those in the old establishment. As they look ahead, the king-in-waiting, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, seems unable to earn the same respect and reverence enjoyed by his father.
With the same nervousness, certain political factions have turned to the lese majeste law to protect their interests and undermine their opponents. In other words, lese majeste has been exploited repeatedly as a political weapon.
The Thongdaeng case also reflects the vulnerability of the royal institution, ironically long perceived as a stabilizing force. King Bhumibol has been ill and in and out of the hospital since 2009. His wife, Queen Sirikit, has suffered a stroke. It is fair to say that Thailand is currently a kingless nation under the operation of a military that uses the lese majeste law as the leading instrument to protect itself.
Although ruthless, the military has continued to seek legitimacy to prolong its rule. One source of legitimacy derives from its need to defend the royal institution, and all these cases of lese majeste serve to reaffirm the existence of threats against it. But this tactic can be detrimental to the monarchy in the long run. The charging of Thanakorn in particular points to a growing desperation in the attempts to encapsulate King Bhumibol within an immortal image.
The widespread use of the lese majeste law, meanwhile, indicates that it is there to stay for the new reign. Supporting this assertion is the way that the law has been used to punish even those close to the royal family. The recent arrest of the famed fortune-teller Suriyan “Mor Yong” Sucharitpolwong, who had long served the office of the crown prince but was accused of exploiting royal names for his benefit, suggests that the palace approved the purge against him. Worse, Mor Yong’s mysterious death in prison has heightened fears that the monarchy won’t hesitate to deal harshly with defectors and traitors.
This is not a good sign for Thailand or for the future of its monarchy. The more the lese majeste law is used, the more it will taint the monarchy. In other words, the palace has unnecessarily created enemies for itself, leading to a rapid decline of its authority.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.