Tuesday, July 07, 2009

No Longer a Laughing Matter

When I worked for Asiaweek Magazine in Hong Kong back in the 1990s, we published a feature called the “50 Most Powerful People in Asia”. In the first edition we ranked Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej high on the list. He had earned that spot by defusing a potentially dangerous political stalemate after troops had fired on demonstrators in Bangkok.

When it came time to publish the second list the following year, we initially ranked the King much lower. There had evidently been no crisis to defuse in Thailand that year. Then we caught ourselves. We can’t demote the King!

If we kept the King at the same level as the previous year when he didn’t deserve it, we compromised the integrity of the list. If we moved him to a lower ranking we risked being accused of lese majeste (insulting the monarch), which might get our issue, or maybe even the entire publication, banned in Thailand. What to do?

Soon we hit upon a solution worthy of Solomon. We created a separate sidebar, called it “Asia’s Most Powerful Monarchs” and put the King of Thailand at the top. That was safe. No other monarch in Asia, indeed probably no other monarch the world, had as much prestige and subtle influence in his country’s affairs than King Bhumibol.

It made for an amusing story, something to pass along and chuckle about over a few drinks in the bar of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. But it might not be a good idea to do it around the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand these days. The club has been collectively accused of lese majeste, or at least the President Jonathan Head, Bangkok bureau chief of the BBC, and 12 other members of the FCCT board, including three Americans.

One Laksama Kornsilpa, a 57-year-old woman who works as a translator filed the complaint with the local police regarding a speech by Jakrabob Penkai. Like similar clubs all over Asia, the FCCT had invited Jakrabog, then a cabinet minister, to speak to the club. It later made a DVD of the speech to disseminate to members who had not been able to attend.

Laksama obtained a copy of the DVD and took offense at its contents, which was a rather rambling history of Thai kings over the past 700 year with some vague references to the “patronage system”. The speaker made no specific references to Thailand’s reigning monarch, his queen or the crown prince.

Never mind. In Thailand anyone can file a lese majeste complaint. The police are bound to follow up no matter how trivial or tangential the speech is to the monarch himself. The accuser saw the speech and the action by the FCCT as “acting in an organized fashion to undermine the credibility of the high institutions of Thailand.”

In making a direct assault on the foreign press Thailand seems to be going the way of Singapore in trying to punish outside publications. The Economist magazine’s Dec. 6-10, 2008, issue, for example, was banned for its frank reporting of the King. Probably no country, outside of China, spends more time and effort trawling the Internet to close down sites thought to be disrespectful.

The insidiousness of the threat posed by Thailand’s lese majeste laws comes less from any particular disrespect for the King himself. Indeed, much of the foreign reporting about King Bhumibol’s more than 60-year reign has been deservedly positive. The problem comes from the fact that various factions in Thailand long, grinding political struggle between supporters and opponents of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra use the law as a cudgel against opponents.

Say, for example, that the King gives a speech and describes the political situation in the country as a “mess,” as in fact he did so describe it a couple years back. So if you were to say that in your opinion it is not a mess, somebody can accuse you of lese majeste for contradicting and thus insulting the King.

Many prominent Thai politicians carry the added burden of defending multiple lese majeste accusations. Thai media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, a prominent opponent of former premier and leader of numerous anti-Thaksin demonstrations, has more than 30 lese majeste charges hanging over him - not to mention a couple of criminal libel convictions.

Ironically, the King himself has spoken out against the abuse of lese majeste laws, saying in 2005 “that if you say the King cannot be criticized, that is to suggest that the King is not human.” But at 81 it may be that the King is too feeble to affect any changes. He has said very little, in public at least, about the recent political turmoil.

Not every lese majeste case involves freedom of speech. People can be accused of disrespect for failing to stand for the royal anthem that introduces movies. In 2007 a longtime Swiss resident of Chiang Mai named Oliver Jurer was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. His offense: defacing one of the countless portraits of the King with a can of spray paint.

King Bhumibol pardoned Jurer, as, in fact, he usually does for all foreigners and Thais convicted of lese majeste. But just the accusation means detention until a trail is convened, the public humiliation of being in prison garb and even shackles, the expense of lawyers, public approbation and finally expulsion from a country that the accused may have considered his home.

Even before the latest outrage, the world was beginning to take note of the abuse of lese majeste laws in Thailand and their effect on free speech. In March a delegation of prominent academics led by Noam Chomsky petitioned Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva to take steps to prevent future abuses.

The premier said he would look into the law and its application to ensure that it would not be abused by anyone. He said he would discuss the matter with police to ensure against frivolous or obviously politically-motivated abuses of the law, but nothing much came of it.

Perhaps the complaint against the FCCT adding to the extremely unfavorable international attention occasioned by such actions as the temporary closing of international airports in Bangkok that stranded thousands of businessmen and tourists last year, will bring global attention, and approbation, against this human rights abuse.


Post a Comment

<< Home