Commentary / World

Thai regime plays royal card to silence critics

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

While those in the outside world celebrating this festive season and the closing of 2014, many in Thailand are not enthusiastic about what the New Year will bring following the coup staged by the military on May 22.

Until now, there has been no sign of the military’s willingness to withdraw from politics. An election date has not been fixed. Basic human rights of Thais continue to be violated.

In recent months, the increase in lese-majeste cases suggests that Thailand’s claim to be the “Land of Smiles” no longer rings quite true.

There are many reasons behind the law’s application. Propping up a weakened monarchical institution and disguising the uncertainty of the royal succession is one rationale.

Attempts to control society, conserve elitist privileges, prolong the military’s role in politics, obstruct democratization and cope with the technological revolution in cyberspace also play a significant role.

The military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha is very serious about the lese-majeste charges. In many ways, these charges seem to confirm the existence of the so-called anti-monarchy movement in Thailand.

They also justify the coup whose agenda, among other things, is to protect the royal institution. But the more the military employs the law for political purposes, the more they weaken the monarchy, particularly now in the twilight of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s long reign.

Application of the law highlights a sense of desperation — not authority — on the part of the Thai state.

That many accept that the monarchy has a legitimate role to play in Thai political life, and has the right to intervene in times of crisis without sanction, underscores the royal dominance over democratic system.

A “prerogative state” now seems to coexist with regular Thai society, in which the palace and the military operate above the rule of law and democratic accountability is no longer robust.

The lese-majeste law is used to protect the royal institution as well as a much broader system known as the “network monarchy.” The law serves to obscure the functions of the prerogative state and to defend members of the network monarchy from public scrutiny — so long as their actions are justified by the pretense of safeguarding the monarchy. This process runs parallel with the unending re-sacralization and re-glorification of King Bhumibol.

The strategy allows political opponents to be accused of disparaging the centuries-old institution and be labeled “enemies of the state.”

Interestingly, a decade ago, allegations of lese-majeste primarily served as an inter-elite means to eliminate one’s enemies. For example, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra accused the Democrat Party of committing lese-majeste by exploiting the monarchy in its election campaign.

Similarly Thaksin and Sonthi Limthongkul, a leader of the royalists People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), also pointed the finger at each other for not respecting the royal institution.

Today, with political space much more open — and with the prerogative state coming under threat — the royalists have begun to target virtually anyone with different political leanings.

Thirty-three cases of lese-majeste came before the Courts of First Instance in 2005; the number increased almost fourfold to 126 in 2007. That jumped to 164 in 2009, then tripled to 478 cases in 2010. The most dramatic increases came under Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat government. Since the coup this year, many Thais have been jailed for lese-majeste, with no chance to obtain bail.

Two university students have been imprisoned for their stage play deemed critical of the monarchy. One woman whose Facebook account was hacked was also charged, though the lese-majeste content appeared on her page without her knowledge.

Another woman is under investigation for wearing black on the king’s birthday (Dec. 5); this was interpreted as an act of malice toward the king.

Earlier in December, a man was charged for criticizing the king’s speech, which praised his pet dog named Thongdaeng for its loyalty in comparison with corrupt politicians. He expressed anger and questioned the comparison followed by cursing.

At the heart of the problem is the military’s attempt to silence critics of the monarchy using the lese-majeste law as a weapon. In this line of thinking, treason seems to lurk around every corner, and the lese-majeste law is a powerful device to mute political dissent.

While objectives like these clearly explain the law’s misuse, the reason for singling out particular enemies is more elusive. As one example, in 2011, Thailand’s Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situations drew up a stupefying “mind map,” which presented an obscure and convoluted chart supposedly mapping alleged linkages between the monarchy’s enemies. The mind map was later found to be imaginary. And nobody was held responsible for it.

It is true that King Bhumibol stated in 2005 that he could be criticized and that it was unrealistic to say that he could do no wrong. This has been his only response to the mounting number of lese-majeste cases, which have in turn heightened public resentment against the palace.

It is evident that the network monarchy is still exploiting the law for certain agendas. The politicization of the monarchy has lowered the level of reverence of the king himself.

The only way for the monarchy to survive in Thailand’s changing political environment will be for the network monarchy to consider reforming itself, or abolishing this anachronistic law.

The current position of the Prayuth government is clear: eliminating critics of the monarchy is its top priority.

This is sad news and an unfortunate situation that Thais must endure. If this trend of hunting down critics of the monarchy continues, 2015 will be another tragic year for the state of Thai human rights.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, where he teaches Southeast Asian politics and international relations in Asia.