On Wednesday a group of academics led by Thongchai Winichakul of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Andrew Walker of the Australian National University, Jim Glassman of the University of British Columbia, Larry Lohmann of the UK, and Adadol Ingawanij of the University of Westminster, UK, launched a campaign calling for reform of the Thai lese majeste law. The letter was signed by more than 50 international scholars and will be sent to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva soon.
What were they up to?
The letter urged the Thai government to consider the following:
1 Stop seeking more suppressive measures against individuals, websites and the peaceful expressions of ideas.
2 Consider suggestions to reform the lese majeste law to prevent further abuses and to prevent the possibility of further damage to the international reputation of Thailand and the monarch.
3 Consider taking action to withdraw current lese majeste charges, and work to secure the release of those already convicted under the law. They are charged for expressing their ideas. This should not be a crime.
The letter argues that “frequent abuse of the lese majeste law against political opponents undermines democratic processes” and generates “heightened criticism of the monarchy and Thailand itself, inside and outside the country”.
The timing of this campaign is at best dubious. It comes hot on the heels of Chulalongkorn University Professor Giles Ungpakorn fortifying his attack against the Thai monarchy in London. Last month, Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was pardoned after being sentenced to three years in jail for slandering the Crown Prince in a self-published novel. Daranee Chancherngsilpakul, dubbed “Da Torpedo” and a key red-shirt leader, is in jail pending prosecution against her for alleged lese majeste. Jakrapob Penkair, a Thaksin follower and one of the key leaders of the red-shirt Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship, is under police investigation for alleged lese majeste.
The past three years represent an unusual time for Thailand, with ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s politics of division lying at the centre. There have been all kinds of abusive websites and publications targeted against the monarchy. Amid this confusion lies a long dormant republican movement, with its headquarters in Chiang Mai, which is now trying to reactivate itself. Riding on the back of the yellow/red political polarisation, its aim is to undermine the credibility of the monarchy, if not to destroy the revered institution altogether. So you have to question the motivation of Professor Thongchai and his friends as to whether they are addressing the core of the issue.
Firstly, I would argue that there is nothing wrong with the lese majeste law. Since Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, it must have a law to protect the monarchy from vandalism, libel and defamation. This is similar to the Netherlands’ Penal Code, in which there are three articles covering lese majeste.
As individuals, Thais are also protected by a libel law. A journalist can easily go to jail if he defames a politician or public figure. The confusion surrounding the lese majeste law has more to do with the enforcement of the law rather than the law itself. The problem lies more with the police and public prosecutors, who have failed to stick to the rule of law. If they enforce the law with competence and without any political prejudice, there would not be any problem with the lese majeste law because it would only cover cases of libel, vandalism and defamation. The Thai justice system was quick to punish Nicolaides and slow to prosecute Jakrapob, giving the impression that the law has become an abusive tool.
Indeed, enforcement of the lese majeste law has been abused by politicians, police and public prosecutors for their own political advantage. Again, this has nothing to do with the law itself.
Secondly, there is nothing wrong with anyone criticising the monarchy in a constructive or academic way. The Thai King is open-minded enough to listen to opinions. The foundation of the monarchy is strong enough to withstand criticism. His Majesty has even said, “The King can do wrong”. Since the King practices the “10 Virtues of Kings”, he would only do anything wrong unintentionally.
You have to differentiate between criticism of the monarchy in an objective manner and vandalism, libel or defamation against the monarchy with ill intent. Thongchai and his academic friends do not make any differentiation.
Thirdly, and actually, the King can do “no” wrong. Under the constitutional monarchy, the King, as head of state, defender of the Buddhist faith and head of the armed forces, signs all legislation into law and endorses key appointments of civil servants, judges and military and police officers. A bill cannot become law without his signature, after which it is published in the Royal Gazette.
But the King cannot sign any documents without somebody – an agency or an institution – presenting the documents to him. In the case of legislation, the bill first has gone through ministry vetting, Cabinet vetting, House committee vetting and passage in the lower and upper Houses. Only then will the King sign the legislation into law. In the case of the appointment of the prime minister, for instance, the King endorses him only after the House Speaker has presented the prime minister’s name to him after a vote in the House. The King endorses the appointment of a Bank of Thailand governor only after the Cabinet has approved the appointment.
The King strictly follows the law and tradition. Although he might disapprove of an appointment or law, he keeps it to himself. He plays by the rules. That’s why the King has the people’s respect. In a way, the King acts as a rubber stamp. Only when the country is in turmoil – when law and order breaks down – does it then become necessary for the King to express his opinion. And the Thai people generally welcome his wise counsel. This is the role of the Thai Monarch.
The King did not approve of the 1992 coup launched by General Suchinda Kraprayoon, but since the Army had already toppled the government, the King could only go along with the coup because he had no power to stop the military. Without his endorsement, the country would be in anarchy.
The King did not approve of or support the 2006 coup either. Again, since the Army had toppled the Thaksin government, he had no power to stop the military. He had to endorse the coup to keep the country moving. But this does not mean that the King supported the coup as some anti-monarchists have tried to defame him without any evidence.
You have to truly understand and appreciate the Thai constitutional monarchy. Don’t be fooled by politicians, the police, public prosecutors and some academics.