Surayud’s puppet regime has achieved a dubious first. Unlike any other recent Thai government they have subjected the king to widely publicised international ridicule. About two weeks ago, a juvenile and irreverent clip mocking the king was posted to the video sharing website YouTube. When New Mandala first saw the clip it had been viewed by only a handful of curious web explorers. But the Thai government was determined to change this, and after they blocked YouTube in Thailand views of the clip rocketed. A few days ago the clip was removed (whether by YouTube or by its creator is not completely clear). But now a spate of copycat clips have appeared on YouTube (and presumably elsewhere) and they are receiving considerable viewer interest and international media coverage.
If anyone needed convincing about the incompetence of the Surayud regime, then this episode must surely provide belated confirmation. A ham-fisted over reaction has turned an amateurish piece of internet graffiti into an international campaign for internet freedom. Activists in cyberspace are keen to mock the Thai government (and the government is now their target) by posting increasingly offensive and provocative images of the king.
There is no doubting the offensiveness of these clips to many Thais. But even the briefest survey of YouTube’s offerings will uncover even more offensive clips about, for example, Queen Elizabeth and Pope Benedict. By and large these clips are ignored by British royalists and international Catholics. They slip into internet oblivion, perhaps causing the occasional giggle and, no doubt, a little outrage along the way. By contrast the Thai government has ensured that the provocative juxtaposition of profanity with the king’s portrait may be the most memorable international images of Bhumipol’s 80th year.
But this is more than just an issue of the Thai government’s sadly outdated dealings with the internet. It is clear that the offensive clip campaign gains considerable energy, and even credibility, from the heavy handed sentencing of Oliver Jufer on lèse majesté charges. There is considerable juvenile mischief in this campaign, but there is also a legitimate sense of outrage that a country claiming to be modern and internationally connected can sentence someone to 10 years imprisonment for, at worst, an act of drunken vandalism. While this sentence stands, and while Surayud’s regime continues to adopt a paternalistic “we know best” attitude to diverse forms of cultural expression, forms of protest (rational and irrational) are likely to proliferate.