Saturday, April 14, 2007

Letter from Thailand (4)

HUA HIN, Thailand - When I worked for Asiaweek magazine back in the 1990s, we had a feature called the “50 Most Powerful People in Asia.” In the first edition, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand had ranked very high on the list.

This was in the early 1990s when the King had intervened to defuse a dangerous political stalemate in Thailand, after troops had fired on unarmed demonstrators in the capital.

The next year the list was published the King ranked considerably lower. There had evidently been no crisis to defuse in Thailand. Or at least he ranked lower before we caught ourselves and realized “we can’t demote the King.”

If we published the list with a lower ranking for the King, we might get our publication banned in Thailand for lese majeste , insulting the King.. But if we kept him at a level that he didn’t really deserve, we would compromise the integrity of the list. What to do?

We finally hit on an excellent compromise. We carved out a separate box story, called it “Asia’s Most Powerful Monarchs” and put King Bhumibol at the top. That was a safe bet. The Sultan of Brunei may technically be the only absolute monarch in Asia, but elsewhere in the region no constitutional monarch came close to his prestige and subtle power.

Lese Majeste has been in the news of late. A Swiss man named Oliver Jurer was recently convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for lese majeste. His offense was to take a can of spray paint and deface several of the King’s ubiquitous portraits in Chiang Mai.

A few days ago the King gave Jurer a full pardon, and he left Thailand for his native land. (presumably never to return to Thailand. At the same time the junta cracked down on the Internet portal YouTube because it had broadcast some images of the King that were viewed as being disrespectful.

Indeed, one of the underlying motives for the September 19 coup was the belief among the military and elite that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra had also been, in his own way, disrespectful.

That is not so unusual., Of the several dictators who have ruled Thailand since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, many have taken cover behind lese majeste laws. In the recent political turmoil there has been a surge of lese majeste complaints as political opponents make such accusations to score political points.

When media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul was leading demonstrations against Thaksin a year ago, he was hit with 37 lese majeste charges for comments he or one of his publications supposedly made against the King.

During the uproar over the bungled, one-party national election last April, which was eventually nullified after the King intervened, a certain army captain filed a lese majeste charge against Election Commission chairman Vasana Puemlarp.

His offense: he had defended the general election as being “democratic” when the King himself hadcalled it “undemocratic” in a speech. So in his mind it was an offense not just to defame the King but also to contradict him.

The King himself is free with pardons and has talked vaguely in the past of allowing his subjects to criticize him in a respectful manner. Not many Thais are inclined to take him up on the offer.


Blogger organisingchaos said...

Investor confidence in Thailand is declining, as a result of uncertainty over investment regulations and when the military government will step down. The rumoured connections between Thaksin's downfall and the King's chief advisor can't also be helping.
The problem is that journalists must have to exercise self-censorship to operate in this environment. This can't be healthy for the debates that need to take place about how Thailand best structures its monarchy, its investment rules and its democracy.

April 28, 2007 at 10:25 PM  

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