The assassination of the popular poet, Red Shirt activist and critic of Thailand’s notorious lese majeste laws, Kamol Duangphasuk, aka ‘Maineung K. Kunthee’, marks an ominous new low point in the development of Thailand’s increasingly bloody political stalemate, and points to a resurgence of militant royalism.
By virtue of his prominence among a small but outspoken chorus of Red Shirt voices calling for the abolition of Article 112, Kamol’s premeditated killing brings a chilling new dimension to the patterns of political violence which have crystallised in the wake of Yingluck’s disastrous Amnesty Bill.
Wednesday afternoon’s gangland style murder – meted out by a hired marksman in the car park of a Bangkok restaurant – is surely the first such case of a pre-emptive hit on a detractor of Thailand’s odious Article 112, and a conspicuous break from the randomised, indiscriminate violence which has characterised the post-Amnesty Bill conflict so far.
In recent times, the extraordinary excess of Article 112, which stipulates a prison sentence of between three to fifteen years for “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”, has been brutally effective as a means of silencing both real and imagined opponents of the country’s monarchy – to say nothing of the article’s frenzied enforcement amidst the heightened tensions of a looming succession crisis and a divided political landscape. Since the military coup of September 2006, scores of alleged critics of the Thai monarchy and the laws which protect its personage from defamation have been needlessly sentenced to obscene amounts of time in prison, or else condemned to an indefinite period of self-imposed exile after fleeing from charges.
The decision taken by an “unidentified gunman” to put a hit Kamol’s life is therefore all the more alarming, considering the unparalleled amount of tried and tested judicial firepower which has evidently been bypassed in this conspiracy to censor one very high-profile critic.
As the political stalemate deepens in the wake of February’s ruined election and PDRC attempts to topple Yingluck through the courts, Kamol’s murder is instructive of a new frenzied level of trepidation among militant royalists in Thailand, who have taken it upon themselves to appropriate and ‘protect’ the image of nation’s monarchy, in spite of Thailand’s already extraordinary and extensive use of lese majeste to charge and prosecute alleged defamers of the institution.
Take the nascent “Organisation to Eradicate the Nation’s Trash” (р╕нр╕Зр╕Др╣Мр╕Бр╕гр╣Ар╕Бр╣Зр╕Ър╕Вр╕вр╕░р╣Бр╕Ьр╣Ир╕Щр╕Фр╕┤р╕Щ), for example, (transcribed as such for want of a better transliteration), the latest extreme group of self-appointed monarchical defenders to gain widespread press coverage in Thailand (in addition to 156,944 ‘Likes’ on Facebook as of April 26th). Working on the not-so-elaborate ideological basis that all opponents of the nation’s royals are tantamount to “trash” in human form – or “rubbish” for UK readers – this bizarre group of militant royalists have begun a vigilante style campaign to hunt down suspected critics of the monarchy and speed up their prosecution by Thailand’s authorities. Using time-old espionage techniques previously employed by the likes of East Germany’s Stasi or Myanmar’s sprawling network of informers during the SLORC era, functionaries of the “Organisation to Eradicate the Nation’s Trash” are encouraged to listen in on fellow citizens, publicly report unfavourable gossip and spread the identities of those deemed to have insulted the nation’s exalted monarchy.
The movement’s founder, retired military doctor Rienthong Nanna, sincerely believes that “Doing it [combating lese majeste] this way is better than others [the police and intelligence services] doing it on their own, which risks provoking more [political] violence.” This is a grossly unjustifiable statement considering the exponential upsurge in lese majeste cases which Thailand has witnessed in recent years, and the increased political violence which has accompanied it. From an average of just 2.5 cases per year during the 1980s, the number of lese majeste charges had risen to 33 in 2005, 18 of which resulted in prosecution for what is essentially a crime of conscience. This already shocking figure multiplied fourfold by 2007, with the total number of cases rising to 126 in a single year. In 2009 the cases numbers leaped again to 164, and then tripled to a staggering 478 cases in 2010 amidst royalist purges of Red Shirt leaders.
It’s no big secret that the Thai authorities have been utterly merciless in their wide interpretation and prosecution of Article 112, especially since the military coup of 2006, not to mention the 57,300 web pages which have been so far been blocked under the Computer Crimes Act for allegedly hosting anti-monarchy content. With such a ruthlessly efficacious framework of repression already in place, surely the last thing the authorities need is an angry rabble of vigilantes ear wigging their own neighbours as part of a nation-wide witch hunt?
Rienthong’s ambitious plans to rid the country of its so-called “trash” have already resulted in death threats from anonymous militant anti-monarchists, three of whom allegedly stalked the old doctor’s home last Saturday evening. Rienthong has remained unfazed, however, saying that he would not rule out violent reprisals against anti-monarchists who threaten his organisation. Then in an even more sinister move earlier this week, and perhaps emboldened by all the media fanfare, Rienthong publicly announced that he is currently in the planning stages of launching a “People’s Army to Protect the Monarchy”, a prospective paramilitary group strongly reminiscent of the Cold War era Red Guars and Village Scouts. Rienthong has already canvassed the support of a motley crew of retired military and police officials with known royalist sympathies – an indisputably deleterious development given the already crippled condition of the political landscape at present.
The uncanny timing of both Kamol’s murder and the initiation of Rienthong’s witch hunt has – at least temporarily – helped to re-centre the monarchy at the forefront of a political crisis which is chiefly about the vitality of parliamentary democracy in Thailand – a domain in which the monarchy plays no official part. So what is the effect of this gratuitous resurgence in fanatical, militant royalism and how did it come about?
As Pavin Chachavalpongpun astutely argued over three years ago now, with each new prosecution of a high-profile lese majeste case, or with each new elimination of an Article 112 detractor – as in the case of Kamol or the exiled professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn – Thai society becomes further polarised between those who unconditionally support the use of Article 112, and those who vehemently denounce it. The continued abuse of Article 112 and the taboos which shield it from discussion are not only poisonous to democracy at large, but are also poisonous to the monarchy itself. Each new case further politicises the already beleaguered royals and embroils the institution right in the thick of the common man’s political discourse, the very thing which the monarchy is – at least theoretically – supposed to levitate above and beyond.
There can be no doubt that militant royalism has grown in correlation with the vilification of Thaksin as a republican and a traitor (р╕Др╕Щр╕Вр╕▓р╕вр╕Кр╕▓р╕Хр╕┤) – among many other things of course. This desperate band wagon was initially set in motion by the rabble-rousing media baron Sondhi Limthongkul, the godfather of the original Yellow Shirts, who fought a long and dirty battle to topple Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai administration between 2005-2006. Ironically, after first being allied with Thaksin during the early days of Thai Rak Thai, but later falling out with him over financial disagreements, Sondhi has recently been prosecuted for lese majeste himself, after daring to repeat somebody else’s defamatory statement on stage at a rally in 2008. As we all know, Sondhi is of course a die-hard royalist, as his entire political career implies. This was not enough to secure clemency in the courts, however, who eventually prosecuted him last year after reversing an earlier acquittal. An amusing sideshow perhaps, but not the most salient point.
It is my contention here that Sondhi began the anti-Thaksin campaign with a premeditated intent to demonise the former Prime Minister as an enemy of the monarchy and therefore an enemy of the nation. This was of course a campaign of slander in itself, since there was never any evidence to suggest that Thaksin was a republican. On the contrary, Thaksin cultivated an unusually cordial relationship with the heir apparent Prince Vajiralongkorn – a sort of pariah figure when juxtaposed against the towering judiciousness of King Bhumibol himself, and certainly not a favourite of the royalist elite, neither then nor now. Still, in lieu of hard evidence the attempted character assassination went on unchecked, as every trick in the book was desperately thrown at Thaksin’s reputation, culminating in the ridiculous accusation that Thaksin had hired a Cambodian wizard of black magic in order to ensure the destruction of a Brahma statue by a possessed 71 year old man armed with a hammer. Thaksin’s intention, Sondhi subsequently claimed, was to replace the statue with a “dark force” aligned with his deceitful political agenda. Without going too much into the specifics of the campaign, we can clearly see that Suthep has the resurrected much of its tired and fantastical material, and employed it in his own adopted battle to unseat the second Shinawatra administration.
Most salient for my argument here, is that Sondhi, followed by his spitting image descendant Suthep, have both cultivated and maintained a deliberate, dangerous and self-interested duality, which pits Thaksin directly against the current king. On the one hand, Thaksin is denigrated as the fount of all evil – republicanism, greed, corruption, treachery etc. – whilst on the other hand the king is typically upheld as the unquestionable, sanctified, moral core of the Thai nation and the righteous “father” of all its members. The upkeep of this duality among the ranks of the anti-government movement has been crucial for the campaign’s cohesion and its persistence, but it has dragged the image of King Bhumibol deep into the political arena. In lieu of any meaningful or principled vision for the democratic betterment of Thai society at large, the PDRC (much like the PAD that came before it) endlessly extol the greatness of the monarchy and the imperative to protect it at all costs – and for some Thais such arguments are compelling enough alone to win their backing. In addition to this, having Thaksin juxtaposed as the nation’s number one hate-figure is impeccably convenient for the anti-government movement. The largely unqualified or under-articulted hatred of Thaksin rife among the ranks of the PDRC is often sufficient enough to inconspicuously fill the vacuum left by the policy-devoid nature of its political agenda. Of course, both the PDRC and also the Democrats do have that vague mantra about ‘reform’ of some sort, but by and large both organisations are hopelessly politically bankrupt.
By way of King Bhumibol staying in as a major rallying point for the anti-government movement, and Thaksin concurrently being kept on as the prescribed and unrivalled hate-figure of any self-respecting, patriotic Thai; not surprisingly, the political landscape at present has become emotionally charged to the extreme, and the monarchy has been needlessly dragged into it. Now throw into this already explosive mix one of the world’s most repressive defamation laws in modern times, and what you have is a political catastrophe – if not an enormous bloodbath – waiting to happen. Such cursory judgements can be made even before we consider the implications of the Red Shirt movement being stereotyped – en masse – as harbouring an undercurrent of anti-monarchism or not sufficiently ‘loving the king’. Such negative stereotyping of the Red Shirt movement has already been achieved largely through the successful slander of its distant but nonetheless reviled kingpin.
Again, as Pavin has warned previously, royalists should be careful what they wish for, since any such vilification of the Reds and their aims could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially so if Article 112 – or just plain murder – continues to be used against them as a convenient way to airbrush their claims out of the political discourse.
An end to the despotic use of lese majeste, and preferably to the law itself, would certainly help to ensure a less emotionally charged political playing field in Thailand, and would surely preclude the militancy of those groups currently attempting to play vigilante against fellow Thais. Supposing that Article 112 did not exist, then where would groups such as the “Organisation to Eradicate the Nation’s Trash” find their legitimation? Stripped of their judicially enshrined and lofty rasion d’etre, Rienthong and his merry men would cease to be vigilantes altogether; they would in fact be nothing more than a political interest group – a partisan association of the type which would of course be permissible within the framework of a sensible and rational democracy, if not slightly objectionable in the eyes of us more sober observers.
With Kamol’s passing it may be feared that the witch hunt has begun in earnest, and might not find its resolution until the royalist elite relinquish that odious statute which insulates them and their symbolic figurehead from all forms of licit political discourse, be they treasonous or trifling. Article 112 has been on the books since the reign of Rama V, and may well be a deeply historical Siamese tradition. However, even though tradition might be a rallying point and an item of pride in any such polity, Thais should be aware that blind adherence to now defunct traditions – such as lese majeste – could be deleterious to the body politic at large. Inevitably, it has to be said, that like the vast majority of lese majeste statutes which have previously impinged on healthy political life throughout human history, Article 112 will go the way of the dodo.
Nation-wide witch hunts of suspected anti-monarchists might help to fill the jail cells and insulate the monarchy in the short-term, but in the long-term such campaigns will inevitably damage the reputation of the institution and accentuate the alienation of its less fervent admirers – to say nothing of the obvious torrent of condemnation that would pour down from human rights groups and organisations further afield.