“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” (Voltaire)
Thailand is heading into yet another year full of turmoil. And the reason for this anxious time ahead is the lese majeste (LM) law as used in Thailand and other monarchies around the world. What the law is about, what the development in the very recent history has been and what the matter is these days, I will try to summarize in the following post. To get a technical background on how it has been used lately you can go back to my last post of 2011 and have a look on the Wikipedia page here.
The situation these days: there is a group, called Nitirat (i.e. translated “Law for the People”). This group of legal scholars from Thammasat University (TU) called publicly for amending the Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the article concerning the LM. You can look up here what they want to have amended. This public call has made quite some uproar lately and it has become a big deal of not just national scope anymore. Nitirat has gained international support of 224 international scholars, e.g. revered Noam Chomsky, Pavin Chachavalpongpun and others (you can read the letter including the name of signatories here – English version; Thai version here). Why those scholars support the initiative can be read here. Tyrell Haberkorn and Kevin Hewison, who also signed the initiative, gave an interview to Prachatai about their motivations and thoughts. It is not about telling Thailand’s leaders how to run a country; it’s simply put, about valuing the basic human rights of Thai people, which in this case is the freedom of expression and opinion.
National response to the issue has been overwhelming, but in a mere negative way. There is a translation of responses posted to a Thai news report on the issue. The readers call Nitirat members names, they call for violence, the involvement of the Thai army, etc. A group of opponents has already gathered at TU to burn an effigy of one of the most prominent group members and this although some people are not even aware of the proposed amendments or what Nitirat wants to achieve. Still, they threaten to use violence if the group does not reconsider its claims.
The government does not particularly back the proponents of Nitirat but as it is not considering a debate on the issue, it is sharing their way of thinking . They allow the group though to follow their cause and as long as within legal boundaries, they can go on. Still, just recently, army chief Prayuth suggested the group members of Nitirat to “shut up” (as BKK Post describes it here). Generally speaking, the group is moving on thin ice, as the current government is not supporting their case nor is the opposition. Former PM Abhisit has urged the current government to leave the amendment for now and keep on working on the reconciliation of the country, as this is another political powder keg which has been grasping Thai minds ever since the 2006 coup d’état. How blur the situation gets (or actually already is) is pretty well described here in an article writing about the support/opposition in the region of Khon Kaen: “Sunday’s motley crew of attendees cut across social, if not political boundaries. There were out-and-proud Red Shirts (“I came because I’m a Red Shirt”), adamantly color-less university technicians (“The movement to correct the constitution is different from the Red Shirt movement.”), closeted Marxists, Yingluck apologists (“In truth Yingluck wants to change the law, but there are many factions in Thailand and she doesn’t want to fight with all these groups.”), and the likes of Ms. Boonwat, who came dressed to the nines in a floppy-brimmed red hat and flowing red dress.”
Yingluck and her cabinet are even bonding with the army now. That’s new as the army (before the election) was said to be supportive of Abhisit and his party. But maybe this is why the current government is maintaining a very pro-royalist stance on this matter. The army and its generals in Thailand are hard to bypass and always needed to be pleased – otherwise you are history.
The opposition consists of people and parties that have not agreed on issues in the recent years; neither is the composition of proponents a usual formation. I cannot remember a time when the two big parties – in this case the Pheu Thai and the Democrat – (sort of) shared an opinion on a matter of such political significance. The normal way in Thai politics is the blame game. Therefore does this coalition not seem sustainable nor will it help to advance the reconciliation process, albeit this should be the primary goal to achieve of both, the current government and its opposition (in the longer term, as short term efforts should focus on the flood situation). The Yingluck government is even losing support as some of her supporters are calling for amendments of Art. 112:
“Puea Thai supporters suspect that Ms. Yingluck may have struck a grand bargain with the traditional elites: If she leaves the lese-majeste law alone, they will not overturn her government by street protests, court cases and military intervention, as they did previous pro-Thaksin governments. If this is true, the class war is over and the Puea Thai has become an accepted part of the Thai elitist world. This might bring stability to Thailand for a time. But it is not sustainable. In their frustration, Ms. Yingluck’s supporters may turn to more radical groups. The more the elites exploit the lese-majeste law for their own purposes, the more they erode true support for the monarchy. By stopping progress toward democracy, they are ensuring that when class war resurfaces it will be even more divisive.”
Back to the violent side of the LM amendment issue. In no country on this planet, as far as I am concerned, the call for violence has seen good results. It seems that a neutral political debate is not possible anymore and this is or most likely becomes dangerous. Some observers are already asking if 2012 will be yet another year of bloodshed or violence in Bangkok. Very valid question in my point of view as violence seems to be an ever-returning phenomenon in Thai politics, especially in recent years. TU massacre 1976, Black May 1992, April 2009, April/May 2010, coup d’états, etc – just to name the one’s that immediately come to my mind. So now to follow the recent global agenda and events we might add – “The Thai spring 2012”? Is this what we are heading for? It very much seems like it:
“Thirty-six years on, the monarchy continues to take centre stage in the Thai crisis. With the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej coming to an end, the witch-hunt has intensified. Given the uncertainty over the royal succession, bloody confrontations could indeed become inevitable.” (Pavin Chachavalpongpun)
“I would rather propose the George Friedman school of thought – that logic and reason tend to fly out the window when predicting the behavior of the state. Man is an erratic creature. The chaos and bloodshed over the past five years in Thailand is testament to that. There are several options: push ahead in the name of freedom and democracy, thereby flirting with chaos and bloodshed; sacrifice basic human rights and democratic advancements, in the interests of safety, as Mr. Somkit did for Thammasat; or we can simply be wiser in what we do. Fate is inexorable, so in order to progress men should make better use of strategies. The issue at hand is to protect the innocents from the overzealous use of the lese majeste law, while keeping the law in place for those who genuinely abuse the monarchy.” (Righteously asked by Voronai Vanijaka “Will there be blood?”)
The incidents around the Nitirat group took mostly place at the TU, which has been an advocate of academic freedom and human rights, but also stage of sad moments in Thai history. The University’s rector is now caught in the middle of this debate and as he puts it rightly, he finds himself in a “no-win situation”. To prevent any violence to happen he banned the group’s activities for a while as suggested by Veera Prateepchaikul: “But as the rector, Somkit’s job is not only to allow, to promote, free expression on campus but also to ensure the safety of the staff and students and the university’s property. Which means some precautions, including a ban, are needed. But the precautionary measures must be temporary and should be lifted as soon as the risk or perceived risk of trouble has eased.”
I personally do not want to be in the situation Dr. Somkit Lertpaithoon, the TU rector, finds himself right now. No matter what his decision has been or will be, there will be opponents and proponents. His focus should be on the values of Thammasat University, which shown in its emblem and according to its homepage is “The Constitution Tray signifies the university’s philosophy to uphold the country’s constitution and democracy.”
The constitution “permits citizens to submit a petition to amend a law. Regardless of the outcome, we as citizens have the right to express our opinion.” (Nitirat leader Dr. Worajade Pakeerat). So the initiative is not a violation of any law nor is it calling for a drastic change in the countries political structure anyway, i.e. Thailand will stay a monarchy. Therefore the debate should be held within reasonable boundaries but should not be ridiculed nor turned into yet another violent event in Thai history.
Democratic values are underpinning these fundamental values of the constitution. Freedom of expression is a basic human right that should be granted to every person. As Thailand is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, hence also to Article 19, they should uphold these values and therefore allow a debate on issues of public interest. Debating does not mean changing the law or the need to do so; it is just a debate; a formal discussion in which opposing arguments are put forward. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. So Nitirat has put forward its arguments, now it is up to the opposing fraction to put forward its arguments or objections. But for the sake of basic human rights, do not just crack down any attempt of debating a delicate issue. So Dr. Somkit: “If you let both sides speak on campus, where’s the bias?”
A proposal by an assistant to the vice president of the Thammasat University Student Union to vote on whether to ban any political activity or not is an interesting idea. This proposal saw a lot of public consideration and by putting the letter on his Facebook page, the TU rector created a far fetched discussion on the proposal, the LM law itself and even the question about democratic values. I personally find this proposal a very intelligent and democratic solution, so why making such a big fuss around even just the proposal of something like this!? Latest news as far as I’m concerned, the TU will review the ban of the Nitirat group’s activities on Monday.
Actually if you take a very close look at this issue, then you should not support any of the groups as neither of them supports the freedom of expression, as it is meant to be, i.e. no punishment for expressing ones opinion. Criticizing the monarchy, the political system or decisions made by the royal family in a general, formal, non-offensive way should be allowed based on the freedom of speech. Insulting the monarchs (which is a direct or personal insult to the royal family) – of course not. Even HM the King himself, if you recall his birthday speech 2005, told the public that “Actually I must also be criticized. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know. Because if you say the King cannot be criticized, it means that the King is not human.” So HM is actually an advocate of this fundamental human right. Why is the palace not making use of its power though? As it is a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, you know the monarch actually has little political power. Still, in real terms, its known that words from the palace are like unwritten laws (e.g. the public intervention around the Black May 1992).“ But this is a very technical approach to this issue and so the debate as a fundamental right still should be supported in any case.
Continuing on the LM issue now, as observed by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, the LM law has been very much politicized lately and has been used as a tool to suppress people with different ideas and views; even people that have hardly any connection to actual politics, if you recall the latest cases. “The law has been used as a weapon to undermine enemies as well as those with different political ideas. (…) Instead of promoting an open society, Ms. Yingluck has allowed her ministers to implement harsher measures against perceived anti-monarchy elements. The government has spent millions of dollars installing spy software to monitor antimonarchy websites. Chalerm Yubumrung, deputy prime minister and minister of interior, even boasted, ‘My government has closed down more websites than in the previous administration.’ The military has joined the government’s effort in hunting down those believed to be a threat to the monarchy.”
One of the latest cases is Kantoop, a 19-year-old student who allegedly posted insults to the Thai monarchy on her Facebook page. According to this interview she has been tricked into this situation and has never had an intention to insult the royal family. But she stands up for her values, which are fully democratic and non-elitist. This brave young lady will not refrain from reporting to the police station on Feb 11th, 2012 as she is still convinced of her innocence and values. Especially considering her age and bravery, she is a very inspiring public figure.
The political landscape is still far from reconciled and the ideological/social/power/class warfare in the background is still pulling the strings in Thai politics. I am a realist in political terms speaking, so the struggle for power or the preservation of it in Thai politics is a perfect example of this political theory. Those who have been in charge and in powerful seats do not simply want to give up these positions. Thailand seems to be finding itself in a situation where the Arab Spring finds its roots. Yet, the Thai powder keg has not been exploded. And this is where the Thai people can be proud of themselves and this is the point where they have to pull the trigger – don’t even let it get that far. An editorial in The Nation newspaper connected the events around a football game in Port Said, Egypt to the situation in Thailand. If you take this article and leave out some of the focus on soccer, you will basically see in what situation Thailand finds itself or can find itself very soon. “We Thais, of all people, must know that the unthinkable, which could cause us regret for a long, long time, can always happen. Proper precaution, therefore, should not be limited to just building fences and hiring more guards.”
Further interesting reading:
“Killing in the Name of Thailand’s King”, by Pavin Chachavalpongpun
“Just whose land is Thailand?”, by Thitinan Pongsudhirak
“Thailand and ‘Sufficiency Royalism’”, by Pavin Chachavalpongpun