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Royal contradictions in Thailand

Asia Times - December 12, 2011

Shawn W Crispin, Bangkok When Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's public relations team posted an inaccurate photograph of King Bhumibol Adulyadej to her official Facebook page, the premier was potentially in violation of the country's strict lese majeste law. While no such charges have been filed while her request for a royal pardon is pending, the widening use of the draconian law has brought the democratic credentials of both sides to Thailand's political conflict into question.

Last week, Thailand wrapped up annual birthday gala celebrations for King Bhumibol, the world's longest reigning monarch who turned 84 on December 5. This coincided with two widely criticized lese majeste convictions, one last month of an ailing 61-year old Thai man who allegedly sent remarks critical of the monarchy by SMS, and another last week of a Thailand-born United States citizen who translated and posted to the Internet passages from a banned book about the king.

The European Union and United States both issued unusually critical public statements about the verdicts, raising diplomatic concerns that the rising use of the law is undermining freedom of expression. Western embassies, including European countries with constitutional monarchies, have engaged Thai authorities from behind the scenes in recent years on ways to temper and modernize the law, which allows for 15-year prison sentences and is the harshest of its type in the world.

Human rights groups, until now seen as mostly reticent on the issue, have used the diplomatic cover to also make strong statements against the law's widening use. Amnesty International said that convicted US citizen Joe Gordon should be considered a "prisoner of conscience", while Human Rights Watch referred to recent lese majeste penalties as "shocking" and an apparent government response to lingering questions about its loyalty to the crown. The local and foreign press are also giving lese majeste charges more critical coverage than previously.

Academic studies show that the law's use has surged since the 2006 military coup that ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the incumbent premier's self-exiled and criminally convicted elder brother. Coup-makers justified their putsch in part on charges that Thaksin was disloyal to the crown volatile allegations in Thailand's political context that Thaksin has consistently denied. The outgoing Abhisit Vejjajiva-led government oversaw the filing of 478 lese majeste cases last year, a threefold increase over the number lodged in 2009, according to Office of the Judiciary statistics.

Anti-royal charges filed by his Democrat Party were often politicized to undermine certain of Thaksin's political allies, including known republican elements in his United Front Against Dictatorship for Democracy (UDD) "Red Shirt" protest group. But Yingluck's equally aggressive approach to purging anti-monarchy sentiment has blurred the earlier storyline that portrayed Thailand's political conflict as a fight between an old royalist elite and a Thaksin-aligned noveau riche who hold competing visions for the monarchy's future once the widely revered King Bhumibol passes from the scene.

Yingluck's government established a new "war room" at police headquarters tasked with monitoring the Internet for anti-royal postings. Last week, she established a new 22-member committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung to scour and purge the web for lese majeste violations.

Information and Communications Technology Minister Anudith Nakornthap told reporters last month that since August his ministry has called on Facebook to remove over 86,000 URLs with lese majeste content from its site. He warned Thai Internet users that clicking "like" or "share" features on Facebook pages with perceived anti-royal content could also be construed as lese majeste. (The Democrats have advocated banning Facebook and Youtube altogether.)

Loyalty contest

Yingluck, who was catapulted to power by Red Shirt street protests that claimed to be fighting for "true" democracy and an end to double standards in Thai society, has bowed deeply and often to royal authority since taking power. Rights groups point toward the lese majeste-related arrest of a computer programmer on September 1 as indication of a grassroots crackdown; it is unknown how many people have been detained on lese majeste charges under her administration's watch.

Yingluck's anti-democratic tendencies, in the name of upholding the monarchy, have disenfranchised many of the genuine pro-democracy activists in Thaksin's camp.

Although Thaksin is currently afoul King Bhumibol's advisory Privy Council, it is widely expected that he will receive a more sympathetic hearing once heir apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn takes the throne and appoints his own team of royal advisers. Some political analysts see Yingluck's high-profile crackdown on anti-monarchy materials posted to the Internet as a proxy bid by Thaksin to establish his credentials as a guardian rather than threat to the monarchy ahead of the eventual succession. Since Yingluck took power, his political allies have attacked the current military leadership and opposition Democrats while at the same time courting royal favor.

Yet even high-placed royalists believe the recent flurry of lese majeste cases are doing more harm than good to the monarchy. In 2005, King Bhumibol famously said during his birthday address that the king was not above criticism and that shielding the monarch from criticism was akin to looking down on the crown.

With pockets of grassroots pressure and diplomatic displeasure since building against the law's arbitrary and frequent use, many observers thought King Bhumibol might make a similar statement during this year's nationally televised address, which concentrated instead on the need for national unity after the recent flooding disaster.

Anand Panyarachun, a former prime minister and top royal adviser, recently acknowledged that the application of the lese majeste law, particularly a provision that allows any private citizen to file charges, should in his opinion be amended. In a counter to online and other criticism of the monarchy, Anand recently steered the production of a new biography of the king that breaks with the tradition of hagiography and aims to give the monarch a more human, less godly face. Written by a group of foreign writers, the volume casts new light on previously opaque royal corners, including on the Crown Property Bureau's extensive land holdings and widely misunderstood rules of royal succession.

There are competing interpretations of the apparent disconnect between top royalists calling for the law's reform and the rising use of lese majeste charges to silence dissent. One theory is that no Thai official is secure enough in their position to risk initiating legal changes that could easily backfire in anti-royal charges being filed against them personally. Outgoing premier Abhisit initiated a panel tasked with exploring reform of the law's application but it failed to make any progress. Yingluck, too, has backed away from comments she made around the July election that she would consider amending the law's application.

Another view is that one wing of the palace backed by the military top brass and their allied retired coup-makers wants the law firmly upheld in the run-up to what is expected to be a delicate and potentially destabilizing royal succession from the revered King Bhumibol to Vajiralongkorn.

The military often leans on royal prestige to justify its independence from elected civilian governments. King Bhumibol's passing will open a moral authority vacuum top royalists fear the current succession plan will fail to fill, according to leaked US diplomatic cables that quoted top royal advisers. The lese majeste law shields the king, queen, heir apparent and regent from insult and threat, but leaves the monarch's offspring and Privy Council open to criticism.

Academic David Streckfuss argued in a recent paper that the post-2006 expansion and mobilization of the lese majeste law "no longer simply protects the institution" but "has come to define the institution of monarchy in Thailand, much like toward the end of absolutism in various regimes in Europe".

Streckfuss argues that the post-coup shift from anti-royal charges being filed predominantly among competing elites and politicians to common citizens represented a significant turning point one that both sides of Thailand's political conflict are exploiting for political gain and by many estimates increasingly at the monarchy's expense.

[Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.]

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