Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Long Live the King

We watched the celebration for King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 84th birthday on television.  It was a slightly muted affair because of the lingering flooding in Thailand that has caused over 600 deaths, driven tens of thousands from their homes, and destroyed crops and factories.  The King traveled in a motorcade from Siriraj Hospital (named for the Queen), where he has lived for over two years, across the Chao Phraya River to the Grand Palace.  The route lined with his cheering subjects was only a block away from our condo and if we'd known earlier we might have gone down to wave flags, and shout "Trong phra charoen!"(Long live the King!), as he passed by.   From a balcony in the Palace, surrounded by his extended family, he read a short speech to hundreds of invited guests in colorful civil service and military uniforms asking them to implement some of the many water projects he has proposed over the years to prevent such flooding.

In the evening, Nan and I went to Sanam Luang, the large parade ground opposite the Palace, to see the festivities up close.  We expected fireworks but they were apparently cancelled to make more funds available for needed flood relief.  The west side of the park, which recently had a full-scale make-over (and now bans over-night sleepovers, upsetting both the homeless and streetwalkers), was lined with booths from each province exhibiting their products and hundreds of food vendors.  The sky was filled with spotlights and dozens of khom loy (candle-lit sky lanterns). We walked to the long wall of the Palace to watch a son et lumiere show celebrating the history of Thailand and the King's life (you can see my video here. Afterwards, we joined the crowd of thousands to listen to performers on a huge stage in the middle of the grass field before walking back home across the bridge.

As is the custom, the King took the occasion of his birthday to pardon prisoners, 26,000 of them.  But this list did not include red shirts jailed for terrorism during the troubles a year and a half ago, nor the growing list of violators of Thailand's harsh lese-majesté law and the similar Computer Crimes Act passed by the military coup junta in 2007.  A few days after the King's birthday, Joe Gordon, a native-born Thai and naturalized American citizen, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for posting a web link to a Thai translation of the banned biography, The King Never Smiles (written by American journalist Paul Handley and published by Yale University Press).   That this was done while he was living in Colorado made no difference.  When he traveled to Thailand for medical reasons, he was arrested and jailed without bail.  The U.S. Embassy and even Clinton's State Department have raised mild objections.  But Gordon's only hope now is a special pardon from the King which sometimes is granted to those who plead guilty (as he did).  When dissidents are arrested in countries like China, the U.S. is much more vocal.  Human rights groups around the world have called the possibile penalties for lese-majesté of from three to fifteen years "shocking" and unacceptable.

The original lese-majesté law dates from the early 20th century and, while common in other constitutional monarchies, is punished more severely in Thailand than anywhere else.  Critics say it is now being used politically to attack opponents, and some believe it harms the monarchy more than protects it.  David Streckfuss, author of Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, treason, and lese-majesté (Routledge, 2011), says 478 known cases had been submitted to the Thai Criminal Court since the coup, and 397 cases between 2006 and 2009 compared with an average four or five a year in the preceding 15 years.  The conviction rate, Streckfuss says, is currently 94 percent.  Anand Panyarachun, a former premier and senior statesman, agreed with criticism that the law is misused, and said, "The harshness of the penalty should be reviewed."  Last month a 61-year-old grandfather with cancer, got 20 years in prison for sending four text messages to a government official deemed offensive to the Queen, the heaviest sentence ever handed down for a lese-majesté case.  Now called "Uncle SMS" by the Thai media, and protestors who have made him the poster child for the campaign to revoke the law, the man denies sending the text messages and says he doesn't even know how.  He wept in court and said, "I love the King."

It's impossible for a foreign expat to understand the depth of feeling on this issue and risky to speculate.  As a admirer of the red shirt movement and the Pheu Thai party it backed, which was overwhelmingly elected in the last election sending a rebuke to the Democrat party that was supported by the country's elite, I hoped to see significant changes when exiled formed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's sister Yingluck took power.  But the new politics looks a lot like the old.  Certainly the disastrous floods threw a monkey wrench into any planned changes, but it doesn't explain Yingluck's current coziness with the military nor her government's ongoing attempt to shut down internet sites and even threaten freedom of expression on Facebook and Twitter.  What's going on?

A major problem with lese-majesté laws is that the details of charges and evidence in favor of them remain secret.  Even questioning a court's decision is against the law. Since the public is unaware of the limits of free speech, all reference to the monarchy must be carefully censored.  If you believe the last two governments, nasty talk and images directed at the monarchy are rampant on the internet. Tens of thousands of web pages have been blocked.  Those who believe the King is universally beloved by his people might puzzle at this.  As a dedicated user of the net, however, I have never seen anything that could be construed as defamation or an insult (which is not to say all references are benign). Perhaps they are only in Thai.  I know of several sources that argue Thailand should become a republic and perhaps this kind of thing is the target of the laws.  The effect of blanket suppression of speech, however, is to make any discussion of the future of Thailand almost impossible.  The succession will be a critical transition for the country and no one is publicly talking about it.  In a Buddhist country where impermanence is a major component of the Buddha's teaching, Thais often act as if the present is forever.

My first memory of the King of Thailand was hearing that he played the clarinet and had jammed with Benny Goodman.  What a cool guy, I thought.  When I first arrived in Thailand, driving into Bangkok from the airport I saw his huge portrait on the side of many buildings.  Since then, I've been in homes in different parts of the country and his picture is everywhere, and not for show either.  Thais appear to respect and revere their King as much as a demi-god. From the 1950's onward, he established himself as the people's king, traveling throughout Thailand to learn of problems and propose solutions.  His proposals have usually had self-sufficiency as their goal and his focus has been on agriculture and the water necessary to grow crops without destroying them in floods (his suggestions too often ignored by governments).  In times of crisis, his intervention has sometimes served to calm opposing sides.  While religion can divide (Thailand's largest minority are Muslims), the reign of King Rama IX for over sixty years has been the touchstone for Thainess, the core of the Thai citizen's sense of identity.  What comes next and his legacy are too important to ignore.

Addendum: Pravit Rojanaphruk has an excellent analysis in today's conservative English daily, The Nation, on how the metaphor of Thailand as a family strengthens resistance to eliminating the lese-majesté laws. "The tradition of obeying the father at all costs has a negative effect," Pravit writes.  "Any doubts or questions from some of the 'children' are treated as something 'incomprehensible"'or even 'horrendous' by their 'siblings'. Severe punishment under the lese-majeste law is therefore a 'sensible' and even 'just' way of dealing with wayward 'children'."  Shawn W. Crispin, writing in Asia Times Online, thinks that "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." Crispin thinks increasing use of the lese-majesté laws is because some monarchists want them upheld "in the run-up to what is expected to be a delicate and potentially destabilizing royal succession."  The big question: Is open discussion harmful or helpful?  Who benefits and who loses by preventing free expression?

1 comment:

Janet Brown said...

It certainly could be for you--be careful. The point to L-M laws isn't for the current situation, but the next one, which will be ruthless in its death throes. Since this could happen in the next minute, it's essential to get the apparatus in place now. And as the JG case points out, no citizen of any country is exempt.