A Thai TV program discussing the role of the monarchy has sparked growing controversy, with reactionary voices sparking a police investigation. The public broadcaster ThaiPBS aired a week-long special of its interview and  discussion program ”Tob Jote Prathet Thai” (“ตอบโจทย์ประเทศไทย”, roughly translated to “Answering Thailand’s Issues”) about the royal institution. The series culminated in a two-episode debate between Thammasat University historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul and royalist critic Sulak Sivaraksa, focusing on the draconian lése majesté law. However, ThaiPBS decided not to air the last part of the series, citing fears it could “spark social unrest”. (Read our previous post here).

Thai historian and academic Somsak Jeamteerasakul (left) and royalist critic Sulak Sivaraksa (middle) at a taping of the ThaiPBS interview program “Tob Jote Prathet Thai” with host Pinyo Traisuriyathamma, discussing the role of the constitutional monarchy. (Photo: ThaiPBS/Facebook)

During the whole run, the program was deemed controversial as it was both commended and condemned for openly discussing the role of the monarchy in Thailand on national television. Similar condemnation and commendation was aimed at ThaiPBS after their decision to cancel the airing of Friday’s episode, which sparked rumors about political intervention. A collateral damage was the show “Tob Jote” itself, when host Pinyo Traisuriyathamma announced shortly after the cancellation that he and his team would no longer produce any episodes of the program.

However, much to the surprise of everyone, ThaiPBS eventually reversed its decision and aired the second part of the Somsak-vs-Sulak debate on Monday night without any prior notice and promotion. An executive explained before the broadcast that by showing the final part, the audience would understand that part of the political crisis and divide stems form the lèse majesté law, and its abuse actually harms the royal institution.

The controversy over the show is now growing as a group of 100 “fed-up” ultra-royalists, led by self-proclaimed monarchy-defender Dr. Tul Sittisomwong (whose stances on pro-LM and against LM reform have been well documented), protested at the ThaiPBS headquarters on Wednesday and have called for the executives to resign. We have also already mentioned the 40 appointed (as in NOT democratically elected) senators claim that the show’s content is deemed lèse majesté.

The program also provoked army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha to break his months of relative silence and to revert to his usual brazen rhetoric and also slammed the program and its makers. As seen in this video, Prayuth struggled to find the right words, in order not to be too harsh, but nevertheless said this:

“The TV show and its contents are allowed by law but we should consider if it was appropriate. If you think Thailand and its monarchy and its laws are making you uncomfortable, then you should go live elsewhere,” Prayuth told reporters.

Thai TV show draws army wrath for lese-majeste debate“, by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Reuters, March 20, 2013

The hawkish general has been previously quoted saying that victims of the lèse majesté law “should not be whining” because “they know it better.” He has also said the following (as previously blogged here), which kind of foreshadows his own words from this week and may should adhere to his own advice then:

“(…) คือกฎหมายเราและประเทศไทยก็คือประเทศไทย ผมไม่เข้า(ใจ)ว่าหลายๆคนอยากจะให้ประเทศไทยเป็นเหมือนประเทศอื่น มีเสรีทุกเรื่อง แล้วถามว่ามันจะอยู่กันยังไงผมไม่รู้ ขนาดแบบนี้ยังอยู่กันไม่ได้เลย” พล.อ.ประยุทธ์ กล่าว

“(…) Our laws are our laws and Thailand is Thailand. I don’t understand why so many people want Thailand to be like other countries – to have freedom in everything – how can we live? I don’t know… I can’t live even like it is now already!” said Gen. Prayuth

‘ประยุทธ์’แจงปิดวิทยุชุมชนหมิ่นยันทำตามกฎหมาย“, Krungthep Turakij, April 29, 2011

The absolute low points so far in terms of reactions came from Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung and the Royal Thai Police, which are under his watch. They claim to found content in the show that is deemed lèse majesté and have now started to take action:

An initial check of the tapes of the fourth and fifth episodes of the monarchy-debate series found that some statements by guests on the programme were in violation of the law. [Royal Thai Police spokesman Pol Maj-General Piya Uthayo] said that because the programme has attracted a huge public interest and the issue has ramifications on national security, the police have appointed a team of 50 investigators led by Pol General Chatchawan Suksomjit with Pol Lt-General Saritchai Anekwiang as deputy investigator. Police from stations across the country have been instructed to accept complaints about the programme from members of the public.

The national police chief ordered the team to conduct a speedy yet careful investigation and report on their progress within 30 days.

The public is also warned against disseminating information on the Internet that might be deemed insulting to the monarchy and in violation of the Computer Crime Act. Anyone found involved in the dissemination of the lese majeste content would also face action.

Monarchy debate broke law: police“, The Nation, March 22, 2013

This is basically calling for a crackdown on the program, its makers, the guests, and all online discussions about the content of the show!

As a countermeasure, ThaiPBS has meanwhile set up a legal team.

Chalerm defended the police action, saying that it was his order to transcribe the two episodes and pledged to take legal action against whoever on that show broke the law. He also makes the bizarre statement that the government doesn’t need to get involved, since he is in charge of the police, despite also being deputy prime minister. He also said this:

“Don’t they have anything better to do than criticise the monarchy? It is their right to do so but there must be some limit,” he continued. “Thailand has a population of 64 million. Why give so much attention to the opinions of a small group of people?”

Monarchy debate broke law: police“, The Nation, March 22, 2013

The same can be asked about the initial 20 (!), then 100 “fed-up” royalists protesting at ThaiPBS. These self-proclaimed defenders of the monarchy fail to understand that a reform of Article 112 of the Criminal Code does not seek to abolish or to overthrow the monarchy; that criticism of the draconian law does not equal disloyalty to the crown and the country; and that a public discourse about the vaguely written, arbitrarily applied law is essential if Thailand is to move forward.

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, Thailand. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and is also reports for international news media such as Channel NewsAsia. You can follow him on Twitter @Saksith.