The Thai King’s Banned Speech

Sukjai Lerdsuwanvut wore a white rain poncho over her black mourning dress and carried a basket of carved sandalwood flowers. As afternoon showers soaked Bangkok, she and eight family members stood in line outside one of nine official replicas of the royal funeral pyre in the city, waiting to pay their respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was cremated on Oct. 26, ending a year of mourning.

But the genuine respect felt by most Thais for their monarchy is besmirched by the growing enforcement of the world’s strictest lèse-majesté law, which makes it a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison per offense to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir apparent or regent. The law was always controversial but rarely used. Yet in recent years abuses have become far more common.

Lèse-majesté arrests shot up dramatically after the ruling junta seized power in Thailand in 2014. Before the May 22 coup, six people were in prison on lèse-majesté charges; over the next 21 months, 90 people were arrested and 45 of them given prison sentences of up to 30 years, according to research by iLaw, a Bangkok-based nongovernmental organization that tracks legislation. The use of the law has allowed the government to persecute critics and to create a widespread fear while maintaining a veneer of legality.

The fate of the law has been inextricably tied up with the image of Bhumibol himself. Almost nobody in Thailand remembers a time before Bhumibol, who was king for 70 years, a consistent symbol of the nation through Thailand’s post-World War II economic growth, Cold War fight against communism, and recent spasms of political unrest. “Since I’ve been alive, I’ve always heard stories about the king,” said Lerdsuwanvut, voicing a common sentiment. “I believe he is the heart of Thailand.”

Hundreds of thousands of black-clad mourners packed the capital last week during five days of funeral rituals, many of them wearing memorial broaches or clasping photos of the late king. The routes to the official mourning sites were lined with gold-framed portraits of a much younger Bhumibol engaged in some of his iconic pursuits: playing the saxophone in the 1950s, snapping photographs or visiting rural infrastructure projects in the 1960s.

The grief felt by Lerdsuwanvut, and the many others who traveled to Bangkok for the cremation, is sincere. But the burnished image of the “People’s King” — as a crusader for little people, a camera-toting investigator and promoter of public works – was shaped and reinforced by a supremely successful 70-year-propaganda campaign. The United States played its part in crafting the king’s image during the Cold War, when the countries around Thailand fell to communism and the appeal of the monarchy was seen as a unifying bulwark. (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos all became communist in the 1970s.)

According to Thailand’s constitution and school textbooks, the monarch is above politics, separate from the spheres of government and business. But nearly every public and private establishment in Bangkok was marking the official mourning period. Black-and-white memorial photos of Bhumibol in full royal regalia were on display at major airports, on highway billboards, at restaurants and hotels, even on the screens of ATMs. Liquor sales were prohibited during the cremation ceremonies, and the city’s ubiquitous 7-Elevens closed early on Thursday. That speaks to the power of the monarchy – and the fear of causing offense – that’s opened up a wide venue for persecution.

One of the military government’s stated purposes – as with other recent coups – is protecting the throne. Thus the lèse-majesté law “is used as a political tool,” said iLaw researcher Anon Chawalawan. “Most people charged are not allowed to be released on bail. The courts will say their offense is severe and they are a flight risk.” Harsh sentences for offending Facebook posts and tweets have recently been handed down to Thai journalists, student activists, and other critics of the junta.

A nephew of a prominent member of the political party founded by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was sentenced to eight years in prison in August for commentary posted on Facebook; after a guilty plea, his sentence was commuted to four years. Last year, a law student and rights activist was sentenced to five years (commuted to 2 1/2 years) for sharing an unflattering BBC Thai documentary about the monarchy on social media.

“Until the past decade of political tension and conflict, the lèse-majesté law was not much in use,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “The [lèse-majesté] law has been invoked more often to suppress dissenters and critics directly, and to impose a kind of self-censorship indirectly.”

But when it came to Bhumibol’s son and successor, the 65-year-old King Vajiralongkorn, most mourners had little to say – at least in public. “If the cremation shows us nothing else, it is that the depth of respect and adoration for the monarchy in Thailand renders the lèse-majesté law redundant,” said Benjamin Zawacki, Bangkok-based author of Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China.

“With the new reign, the enforcement of the [lèse-majesté] law will likely only increase, not decrease, for two reasons,” said Pongsudhirak. “The new monarch does not command as much love and respect as his father on an individual basis, and the monarchy will be under pressure to structurally adjust to new democratic norms.”

Perhaps the best course forward would be to abolish the law altogether, a notion that King Bhumibol himself had advanced. During his annual birthday speech in 2005, the king said, “When you say the King can do no wrong, it is wrong. We should not say that. Actually, I must also be criticized.” He added that honest critiques helped him understand public concerns. “I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know.”

[Washington Post]