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Thursday, May 3, 2012

If you don't think the king deserves to be feted, don't say so in Thailand

Special to The Japan Times

KYOTO — Thailand will soon celebrate another important national event — the 62nd anniversary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's coronation on Saturday. King Bhumibol, a much revered figure in the kingdom, remains the longest living monarch in the world. He was enthroned in 1950, when the monarchy was in a vulnerable position. The absolute monarchy had been abolished only 18 years earlier after dominating Thai politics for several centuries.

Since the military coup of 2006 that ousted the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thai society has become dangerously polarized. The royalist elite, long allied with the monarchy while maintaining their political interests, perceived Thaksin as a threat, thereby overthrowing him on the grounds that he displayed disrespect for the king. But just when they thought that a coup was the right tool to safeguard the royal prerogatives, they were proven wrong.

The coup gave birth to an anti-establishment movement whose members identify themselves by their red shirts. That same coup, initially staged to consolidate the royal institution, has instead stirred up sentiment against the monarch among many Thais. They came to realize the extent to which the monarchy had actively been involved in politics despite its confined role under the constitution. Thus it is misleading to conclude that Thaksin represents the crux of the crisis. Indeed, Thailand's political future greatly depends on the ability of the monarchy to readjust itself to the changing domestic environment.

Unfortunately, there are no signs of the monarchy's willingness to reconstruct its role under a climate of democratization. To counter growing critical views of the monarchy, powerful royalists have exploited the renowned lèse-majesté law to silence not only the anti-monarchists but also those possessing different political ideas.

Lèse-majesté, or the crime of injury to royalty, is defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which states that defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the king, queen and regent are punishable by three to 15 years in prison. Charges against Thais are usually grave and the investigation and prosecution process is by nature opaque.

With King Bhumibol's frail health signaling the autumn of his reign, the royalists have launched an even more aggressive campaign against critics of the monarchy. Prosecution has become more pervasive, virtually against anyone. The manipulation of the lèse-majesté law has severely impacted the human rights cause.

Cases of lèse-majesté have multiplied in the past six years. In 2005, 33 charges came before the Court of First Instance, which later handed down 18 decisions in these cases. By 2007, the number of charges increased almost fourfold to 126. This number jumped to 164 in 2009, and then tripled to 478 cases in 2010. The most dramatic increases occurred under the Democrat Party-led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, which adopted a royalist line strongly backed by the military.

A number of recent high-profile cases, once again, underscores the misuse of lèse-majesté law in the name of defending the monarchy. The arrest of a 62-year-old Thai-Chinese man, Amphon "Akong" Tangnoppakul, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, shocked Thai society. He allegedly sent four text messages insulting the queen and the crown prince. Amphon has always maintained his innocence.

Joe Gordon, or Lerpong Wichaikhammat, a Thai-born American, was jailed for 2½ years in Thailand after posting online excerpts from a banned book, "The King Never Smiles," while living in the United States. The U.S. government criticized the lèse-majesté law, but was taken aback by the response of Thai hyper-royalists, who called for the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador to Bangkok.

More staggeringly, Abhinya Sawatvarakorn, nicknamed Kantoop, or "Joss Stick", a 19-year-old student at Thammasat University, will be charged with a lèse-majesté violation over comments she made on Facebook two years ago. Kantoop was accused of committing lèse-majesté in April 2009 while she was still in high school.

She will be one of the youngest ever to be charged under the law, and has already undergone a catalog of "social punishments." For example, she was reportedly refused admission into Silpakorn University, where some professors painted her as an anti-monarchist. She also had a shoe thrown at her by a student at the esteemed Thammasat University, where she currently studies, and has been forced to change her name to avoid being recognized — and possibly attacked.

And this week, the ruling of the case of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of the on-line newspaper Prachatai.com, who was accused of allowing Web-board comments with lèse-majesté content, has been postponed to the end of the month. Chiranuch was among three female journalists who won the 2011 Courage in Journalism Award given by the International Women's Media Foundation. Prosecuting her will undoubtedly further tarnish the reputation of Thailand.

Back in Bangkok, the glorification of the current monarch has been religiously carried out by royalists as a way of legitimizing the overwhelming royal influence on politics and demoralizing the anti-monarchy elements with the employment of lèse-majesté law as a political weapon. This explains why the celebration of the king's upcoming coronation is crucial. It is designed to remind Thais that the monarchy is the epitome of Thai life. And the dignity of and respect for the king, called the "Father of the Nation", must not be violated.

Since July 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, has assumed the premiership after her Pheu Thai Party won a landslide election.

Initially, it was speculated that her arrival in power could further deepen the crisis because of the conflict between her brother and his enemies. Evidently it now seems that the Yingluck government is interested in making peace with the royalists for its own political survival. This has disappointed her red-shirt supporters.

The fear is that any reconciliation between the government and the palace will likely eclipse the public call for the amendment of the lèse-majesté law for the sake of freedom of expression and the protection of basic human rights.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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