David Streckfuss, Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse-Majesté.

London and New York: Routledge, 2011. Pp. xvii, 488; figs., tables, appendices, bib., index.

Reviewed by Patrick Jory

… All that bowing and kow-towing
To remind you of your royalty,
I find a most disgusting exhibition.
I wouldn’t ask a Siamese cat
To demonstrate his loyalty
By taking this ridiculous position
How would you like it if you were a man
Playing the part of a toad.
Crawling around on your elbows and knees.
Eating the dust of the road! …

Toads! Toads! All of your people are toads!
Yes, Your Majesty;
No, Your Majesty.
Tell us how low to go, Your Majesty;
Make some more decrees, Your Majesty,
Don’t let us up off out knees, Your Majesty.
Give us a kick, if you please Your Majesty.
Give us a kick, if you would, Your Majesty.
Oh, That was good, Your Majesty!

[Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” The King and I (1956)]

There can be few institutions in the world so fundamentally important to a country’s politics, economy and cultural identity, but of which critical discussion is so limited, as the Thai monarchy. This observation applies to discussion within Thailand as well as outside the country. Internationally, while the monarchy’s involvement in the 2006 coup and its aftermath has resulted in a flurry of criticism of its political machinations in the media and especially on the Internet (though less in traditional academic discourse), it is remarkable and not a little disheartening that after sixty years there exists only a single, critical academic biography of King Bhumibol – Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. Within the much more restricted environment of Thailand, a small handful of academics and intellectuals–the Thammasat University historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul and the veteran social critic Sulak Sivaraksa most prominent among them –have recently made the case for the democratic reform of the monarchy. The importance of the institution makes it striking, however, that they have not been joined by a larger number of academics and intellectuals, let alone politicians and the general public. For it is possible to engage in such a discussion within the bounds of legality. This relative silence is all the more perplexing when the present reign is drawing to a close and there is an urgent need for rational consideration of how the monarchy needs to be reformed to create the truly democratic Thailand that all parties to the present conflict appear to advocate.

The question thus naturally arises, how to account for this reluctance to discuss something so crucial? A full answer lies beyond the scope of this short review, but at the heart of the problem is the legal, and indeed constitutional, ban on critical discussion of the Thai monarchy. The importance of this dimension of the problem makes David Streckfuss’s Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse-Majesté particularly welcome at this most depressing moment in Thai politics.

In fact, Truth on Trial in Thailand is not only a study of Thailand’s now infamous lèse-majesté law but also a more general history of the law of defamation and libel in the country. Its main focus is the period from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present. Streckfuss finished the book, which began life much earlier as a doctoral thesis, in the aftermath of the September 2006 royalist coup and during the subsequent political crisis. His study traces the development of the Thailand’s defamation laws and the way in which successive political regimes have used them against their political enemies. But Truth on Trial in Thailand has a larger ambition than simply to present a legal history of defamation. Its overarching argument is that Thailand has become a “defamation regime,” that is “a state whose very mentality and central impulse are defined by its understanding and use of defamation-based laws” (p. 5). Such laws affect the ways in which society “perceives truth and reality,” and they prevent the rise of a “public sphere” in which the public is free to “exercise its reason” (p. 24).

How this defamation regime came into being is the subject of the book. Controversially, Streckfuss advances the argument that one may find the foundations of Thailand’s defamation regime in Theravada Buddhism. While a new code based on Western law largely replaced Thailand’s former legal system in the early twentieth century, the political and social influence of Theravada Buddhism remained largely intact. Streckfuss singles out two doctrines in Theravada Buddhism that, he argues, permeate the spirit of defamation in Thailand: the doctrine of intention, and the doctrine that truth is only accessible to morally pure individuals (p. 36). More broadly, following the centralization of religious control during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), “the Theravada Buddhist system underpinning absolute monarchy … fostered a decidedly anti-rational and anti-intellectual framework that enfeebled the public’s ability to exercise reason as it skewed conceptions of social and political truth” (p. 75).

Michel Foucault’s ruminations on “truth and power” and “regimes of truth” in the European juridical tradition have natural relevance to the topic of Truth on Trial in Thailand; Streckfuss discusses these in Chapter 2 (pp. 43-47). The book also makes considerable use of the theoretical concept of the “state of exception,” borrowed from the scholarship of the jurist Carl Schmitt on Nazi Germany (with which Streckfuss claims Thailand shares “important similarities,” p. 114) and from the more recent writings of Giorgio Agamben. A “state of exception” is characterized by the “development of laws used in extraordinary circumstances”; the application of such indeterminate juridical concepts” as “public security,” “peace and order,” and “state of danger,” which give the state a broad ambit to exercise its authority; and the use of military power to enforce such a legal regime (pp. 113-114). In Streckfuss’s view, Thailand has over the last fifty years–for most, that is, of King Bhumibol’s reign–been in a “state of exception” (p. 32).

While these theoretical diversions provide useful comparative perspective, the real value of Streckfuss’s book is as an empirical study of lèse-majesté in Thailand. It gives lèse-majesté a history, one that “demystifies” both the law and the Thai monarchy that the law is designed to protect. Legal sanctions forbidding criticism of the king existed in the old Three Seals Law, a collection of Thai law compiled during the reign of Rama I at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But, Streckfuss argues, the modern version of lèse-majesté was really born in 1900. It formed one element of the absolutist state created under King Chulalongkorn. Streckfuss demonstrates that the law has always been actively used or strengthened at those moments when the political position of the monarchy has been under threat. For example, the original law of 1900 was enacted at a time when European colonialism posed a threat. An expansion of the provisions of the law came in 1908, four years before a failed coup against the absolute monarchy. In 1927, five years before the overthrow of the absolute monarchy, the Bangkok government again broadened the law to cover “every phase of dangerous revolutionary movements” (p. 96). In 1958, after Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat’s second coup and amid heightening fears of communism (hardly distinguishable from republicanism in the Thailand of the time), decrees issued by the coup leadership gave further legal protection to the monarchy and the royal family. In 1976, following the massacres of leftist student protesters at Thammasat University by security forces linked to the palace and to royalist militias and a subsequent coup, “Coup Order No. 41” increased the maximum punishment for lèse-majesté from seven to fifteen years imprisonment (pp. 87-112). Most recently, in the four years since the royalist coup of 2006 there has been a massive increase in the number of arrests and convictions for lèse-majesté. The current Democrat Party-led government has presided over the greatest number of lèse-majesté cases in the history of the law, with a conviction rate of close to one hundred percent. High-profile lèse-majesté cases, such as those of Suwicha Thakhor, “Da Torpedo”, Jonathan Head of the BBC, and the unlucky Australian Harry Nicolaides, have made international headlines. But, according to Streckfuss’s figures, as many as 170 “political prisoners” may now languish in Thai jails, convicted under the lèse-majesté law and unknown to human rights organizations and the general public (p. 205). There can be no other conclusion than that the lèse-majesté law has been repeatedly used as a political weapon by the monarchy against its enemies.

In addition to its empirical value as a history of lèse-majesté law, Streckfuss’s study also has great value in undermining the school of thought that holds that “the Thai monarchy is unique.” Truth on Trial in Thailand presents an historical comparison of Thailand’s lèse-majesté with similar laws in other countries. The comparison will not fill Thailand’s royalists with much optimism. Countries that resorted to frequent use of lèse-majesté, including France during the ancien régime, Wilhelmine Germany, and the Ottoman Empire, all eventually became republics. Moreover, Streckfuss shows that the use of the lèse-majesté law tended to reach a crescendo in these countries in the years before their monarchies were overthrown.

The main problem that resulted from increased use of the law in Wilhelmine Germany bears a striking similarity to the case in Thailand today. According to an 1897 New York Times report on the situation in Germany, “The law has been vigorously enforced, but it has been not only powerless to prevent offenses of this nature – it has, to a large extent, created a condition of affairs it was designed to guard against.” Streckfuss relates that the effects of the lèse-majesté law were “so severe” that one observer feared that Germans without foreign exposure were losing touch with reality: “Many of the things which are believed by the German at home to be necessary to the Teutonic edifice, when viewed with the same eyes from afar, seem archaic and useless”’ (pp. 20-21).

This book ought permanently to immunize its readers against the “Thailand is unique” thesis. Truth on Trial in Thailand makes clear that modern Thailand instead numbers among those regimes–royalist, communist, or military–whose ruling ideology results in a society with such limited space for the free use of reason that the only rational stance towards most public debate is utter cynicism. In this respect the “defamation regime” that Streckfuss describes is reminiscent of totalitarian societies described in a famous section of Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (1944):

The word truth itself ceases to have its old meaning … [I]t becomes something to be laid down by authority, something which has to be believed in the interest of the unity of the organised effort, and which may have to be altered as the exigencies of this organised effort require it.

The general intellectual climate which this produces, the spirit of complete cynicism as regards truth which it engenders, the loss of the sense of even the meaning of truth, the disappearance of the spirit of independent inquiry and of the belief in the power of rational conviction, the way in which differences of opinion in every branch of knowledge become political issues to be decided by authority, are all things which one must personally experience – no short description can convey their extent… (p. 167).

David Streckfuss has done a great service to the study of lèse-majesté law and of its role in protecting the political and economic interests of the Thai monarchy. That said, his is not an easy book to read from cover to cover. As the author himself admits, it is somewhat longer than it might be, and it could have benefited from some heavy editing. Yet it is a fine, exhaustively referenced study of the history of lèse-majesté law and of Thailand’s defamation laws more generally. It will be an authoritative reference book for a public now very much focused on the problem that lèse-majesté poses for Thai democracy. It should also be said that the book is admirable for the fact that its author lives and works in Thailand, and has become perhaps the most high-profile Western critic of lèse-majesté – not an endeavour without personal risk in the current political climate.

It is to be hoped that Truth on Trial in Thailand may also help stimulate broader critical debate about the Thai monarchy and lend academic support for calls to abolish lèse-majesté law. All Thai citizens ought to have the freedom to tell their king “what they think of him.” When that happens, the ratchakan state over which he has presided since its birth as a Cold War dictatorship more than fifty years ago, and which has perverted the truth for so long, may finally come to be dismantled.

Patrick Jory

Adjunct Professor, Ohio University