What's Behind Thailand's Lèse Majesté Crackdown?

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Pornchai Kittiwongsakul /AFP/ Getty

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej with Queen Sirikit

In Thailand it's often referred to, usually in hushed tones, as "the institution." In a land where the holy trinity consists of nation, religion and King, talking about the monarchy, except in terms of adulation, can be risky business. Political activists, university professors, webmasters and now even a U.S. citizen have found that out the hard way — arrested and charged with lèse majesté: insulting the King, Queen or heir to the throne.

Last Friday, Thai police announced they had arrested Joe Gordon, 55, a.k.a. Lerpong Wichaikhammat, a U.S. citizen of Thai ethnicity, at his home in northeastern Thailand for allegedly posting a link on his blog in 2007 to the book The King Never Smiles, a critical and, some say, unfairly harsh biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The book, by U.S. journalist Paul Handley, is banned in Thailand. Gordon faces anywhere from three to 15 years in prison if convicted. Thai authorities said Gordon also holds Thai citizenship and committed his alleged offense while living in Thailand.

Handley's book aside, few royals have commanded as much reverence at home and respect abroad as King Bhumibol, who, with 64 years on the throne, is the world's longest-reigning monarch. Now 83 and ailing, King Bhumibol has earned genuine praise, admiration and love during the decades for over 4,000 development projects designed to help the poor, and for intervening on rare occasions to end bloodshed during civil conflicts. The monarchy, deeply entwined with the 700-year history of the Thai nation, has long been viewed as the sole unifying force in society.

But whether the monarchy can retain that unifying role in a rapidly modernizing and increasingly fractious society has become a subject of quiet and careful debate in recent years as political turmoil has beset Thailand. Since the military brass ousted in 2006 the then Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, citing his alleged disloyalty to the monarchy as one reason for the power grab, the institution has been subjected to conflicts and controversies that King Bhumibol himself has studiously avoided during his reign. Government literature on Thailand will tell you that the King is above politics. No reliable information has been presented that proves otherwise. But like the monsoon-flooding waters of the Chao Phraya River — the River of Kings — that run through the country's rice basket and down past golden spires of the old Grand Palace in Bangkok, politics have inexorably been rising to the level of the throne.

The evidence is in the explosion of lèse majesté charges filed against a wide and sometimes bewildering range of people. According to David Streckfuss, a Thailand history scholar who has written extensively on lèse majesté, before the 2006 coup there was an average of five lèse majesté cases each year. Since 2006, the courts have seen more than 400 cases. They have included a computer programmer who made obscene posts about the royals, an opposition political activist who called for the execution of the royal family, the webmaster of a political site who didn't delete negative comments posted by readers quickly enough, and a university professor who has written academic papers on reforming the monarchy. On occasion, foreigners and foreign journalists have also been slapped with lèse majesté charges. "At some point the number of cases is going to reach a tipping point where it will have a negative effect upon the institution itself and society," says Streckfuss.

King Bhumibol himself made a similar point during a 2005 speech, when he said that such cases bring him trouble, and that he can, indeed, be criticized if he is doing wrong. He said: "If someone offers criticisms suggesting that the King is wrong, then I would like to be informed of their opinion. If I am not, that could be problematic ... If we hold that the King cannot be criticized or violated, then the King ends up in a difficult situation." No member of the royal family has ever filed a lèse majesté charge. They have always been filed by others, almost always with no connection to the palace, because the law allows anyone to file a lèse majesté complaint.

Yet the position of the current Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, is that the law does not need to be changed. The problem, he said, is that the law is being abused. To try to prevent that, he formed an advisory committee to review cases before going to trial and try to weed out those that are ill founded. Nonetheless, although some high-profile cases were dropped, the volume of cases is still high. Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told reporters earlier this year that one problem is that few policemen, prosecutors or judges are willing to throw out a lèse majesté complaint for fear of being accused of disloyalty.

The government's political opponents say that Abhisit and the security establishment are using lèse majesté laws against them. In May 2010, the military dispersed antigovernment protesters, known as Red Shirts for the color they wear, who had occupied central Bangkok demanding new elections. As part of their justification for using force — 92 people died during the two-month standoff — security officials claimed the Red Shirts were engaged in a conspiracy against the monarchy. Last month, Jatuporn Promphan, a Red Shirt leader and member of parliament, was arrested on lèse majesté charges.

While many, if not most, Red Shirts support the monarchy, an antimonarchy element does exist within the movement, and some, but not all, Red leaders have criticized that element. Most Red Shirts support Thaksin, who, along with other Red leaders, accused the King's chief privy councillor of involvement in the coup — which he denies. But the anger of some Reds has spread to disenchantment with the institution itself, and particularly with Queen Sirikit because in 2008 she attended the funeral a member of an anti-Thaksin protest group called the Yellow Shirts. The Reds and Yellows are bitter enemies.

The charged political atmosphere has created a situation similar to the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s in the U.S. Lèse majesté charges are sometimes filed by those with vendettas wanting to tarnish the reputation of an enemy — either personal or political. Most troubling is the closing of space for serious and academic discourse on the role of the monarchy. Although The King Never Smiles is banned in Thailand, much of what it contains had already been written in Thai by Thai academics. They faced no censure for their work — until last month, when the Thai army filed charges against Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a university professor who had called for the monarchy's reform at a seminar. With Thailand in transition, such overzealousness on the part of some of the monarchy's defenders may chill honest and well-intentioned discourse, and therefore ultimately undermine the future of an institution that is still supported by the majority of Thais. That could pose problems for Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the throne, who has yet to win the level of the people's affection his father has earned and enjoys.

Streckfuss says a number of possible solutions in the form of "braking mechanisms" on lèse majesté cases have been discussed by some academics. They include possibly requiring cases to be approved by the Bureau of the Royal Household before going to court, bringing the law in line with standard libel laws, as well as reducing sentences. "The problem with proposing reform is that anyone who proposes it also runs the risk of being accused of disloyalty — or actually being charged with lèse majesté," says Streckfuss. The challenge for Thailand's leaders is to find the courage to allow open, reasoned and respectful debate in order to preserve what they are so determined to defend.