Panel discussion: ‘Rhetoric and Dissent: Where to next for Thailand’s lèse majesté law?”
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Panel discussion: ‘Rhetoric and Dissent: Where to next for Thailand’s lèse majesté law?”

By Lisa Gardner

Last Thursday, in a small soi across the Chao Praya, this journalist would moderate a discussion entitled “Rhetoric and Dissent: Where to next for Thailand’s Lese-Majeste Law?”. The warm Bangkok evening featured academic Benedict Anderson, Thai columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk, social critic Sulak Sivaraksa and former Reuters correspondent Andrew MacGregor MarshallBelow you’ll find a partial transcript on the key issues raised during the event.

Pravit Rojanaphruk on ‘The Surrogate Religion’

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Journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk with social critic Sulak Sivaraksa. June 7 2012. (c) Yan Marchal

Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk is considered one of the country’s most esteemed, prolific and meticulous journalists. We begin, as we would last Thursday, with his view that portrayals of the Thai monarchy are best understood as a ‘surrogate religiousness’.

  … The monarchy (is presented) as a surrogate monotheistic religion…  as something sacred, as opposed to something profane… a surrogate religion, there are several rituals…

 Of course you have the royalist songs, you have His Majesty’s composed jazz music… events, extravaganzas in honor of the monarchy institution – the King and the Queen. You can wear yellow or pink… You can also keep your bumper sticker (to show) your rapport: ‘We love Father’, at the back of your car… The texts are bountiful… Compilations of the royal sayings… And of course, the famous ‘sufficiency economy’. You have the texts, and there you have preachers…

This ‘religiosity’, Pravit would note:

 … would be incomplete without ‘Satan’, or ‘evil’. Back in the ’70s, it was communism. Today, it is Thaksin Shinawatra; ‘red- shirts’ are just supporters of Satan in this regard…

Last week, we saw the ‘yellow-shirts’, who surrounded the Parliament, and again, recite this call for battle in defense of the monarchy institution by defeating Thaksin.

You see that, those who are critical of the monarchy institution, or at least of the lese-majeste law. I would like to propose that we are merely infidels, non-believers, people who are either direct supporters of Satan or tacit supporters of Satan. 

… (And) that in order to maintain the sacredness and idealized perception or notion of the monarchy institution, one must also place the institutions above criticism or scrutiny. And this is where the lese-majeste law, as well as the Computer Crimes Act comes into place. 

Andrew MacGregor Marshall –  A Constrained Media

Journalist Andrew Macgregor Marshall raised concerns that the media – particularly Thailand’s foreign media – had ‘failed Thailand’: that, fearing retribution, the media detract from poignant truths rather than reflect some of the realities of Thailand’s political transition. In 2011 he resigned from Reuters in order to publish what he considered one of Thailand’s most important and necessary stories; the result of which has since been banned from publication within the Kingdom. Andrew joined us via Skype from Singapore, where he is now based.

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Journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall speaks to the panel via Skype. June 7 2012. (c) Yan Marchal

(Journalists) can’t tell the story of the crisis, because of the lese- majeste and the Computer Crimes law. Instead they pretend to tell the truth… about Thailand’s political conflict…

The foreign media have let Thailand down… I call it ‘sufficiency journalism’… In general, people just report what they have to. What they think they can get away with, to give an inkling about a situation, but without focusing on the key issues…

(But) I don’t think you can report about Thailand, properly, at the moment… with the crisis that Thailand is facing. It is fundamentally about the appropriate role of the monarchy, and the military, in Thai society. It’s also about the succession, and what’s going to happen…

So I think we need to expect something better.

In practical terms, what does that mean? I think that the first thing that they can do is openly admit that they’re restricted in what they say… I think that journalists at least have a duty to be honest about that.

Sulak Sivaraksa: Thailand’s Democratic Future

Prominent Thai intellectual and Buddhist scholar Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa took up on earlier themes, lending his outspoken reviews on the media, Thai education, and the King’s own position on the issue of lese-majeste.

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Sulak Sivaraksa. June 7 2012. (c) Yan Marchal

Why do you have such fear? If journalists had more guts, if they can speak critically, openly, things would change enormously – but they all avoid the issues… 

We have to blame the journalists, not to mention educational institutions. All (the) universities are fairly hopeless. None of them care for freedom. None of them care for truth. None of them care for moral courage. They are interested in money, in power. Each university claims to be democratic – but in fact they are run by a group of mafias. Real mafias…

I think, on the whole, people don’t take the monarchy as that sacred, that wonderful, as they try to tell you in the media. As they try to tell you in educational institutes.

I think the King made it very clear. The case of LM – each case – harms him personally and undermines the monarchy. He made that very clear… But why? Does this government not carry out the King’s wishes? Because Thaksin wants more and more cases of lese-majeste, to undermine the King and to harm him personally…

The army is supreme. I don’t know if you noticed it, but the budget for this year’s military – how much more? What is that budget for? Where would the army fight?… The Thai army only fight the Thai people, without arms… And yet the Army are supposed to protect the monarchy…

I think if the monarch (keeps) clear from the greed that is the Crown Property Bureau – if they’re clear from the army, which represent power – I think the monarchy will become less powerful. Like it used to be…

I think that the only way for the monarchy to survive (is) under the Constitution. And the only way for the monarchy to be good for the people. What we need is a symbol of unity, that the King should be first among equals, (with) no special privileges of any kind.

Prof. Benedict Anderson: Lese-majeste, in Thailand and elsewhere

Best known for his celebrated book Imagined Communities, Emeritus Professor Benedict Anderson is widely regarded as an senior authority on the questions of nationalism, authority and society.

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Prof. Benedict Anderson. June 7 2012. (c) L. Suwanrumpha

Prof. Benedict first spoke to this theme of ‘surrogate religiousness’…

… It is as if one was looking at an election campaign. Someone is running for election, or more election, or re-election. This is a big difference to what one would see, say, 40 years ago. That is to say, the more anxiety exists, its not merely that lese-majeste is more tough, its also that the reverse side of this – that is, an enormous campaign, (from) bureaucrats and police, mainly – to drown the visible roads, shops, etc etc, with endlessly repeated pictures of the royal family.

I mean, itis understandable. But you will find it hard to find anywhere else in the world where so much energy is put in to this kind of message.

… before lending a more international perspective.

I think that if you look outside Thailand… (There are) 27 surviving monarchies in the world, that is, 13% of the countries in the United Nations, not a very large (proportion). That the solid monarchies, that one can see likely to be around… are striking by the fact though they all have a lese-majeste law – they all do – that these laws are more or less not used at all… 

It’s striking that laws for lese-majeste increase in harshness as the monarchy is afraid. 

… The other thing to note is that monarchies these days, in every country, are the last. That is to say that if the family dies out, then there will be no new dynasty to take its place. All monarchies are aware of this. And in most cases, that actually encourages them to behave better than they used to; because after this, it’s going to be a republic of some form, or another…

One of the reasons that there’s source reason for worry, is quite simply and not something directly to do with monarchy here, but you can see it elsewhere – that is… if you look at the Bangkok Post statistics at the number of Thais wearing yellow or orange robes… the number of people in these robes were 6 million. But last year they said the number had dropped to 1.5 million. That is a colossal change in ten years. The active Buddhist monk(hood) lost about 70% of what they had before.

Panel discussion: Thailand’s political future

From Pravit:

 I believe that what has transpired in Thailand over the past six or seven years has reached a point of no return…

Young Thai generations who express criticism of the LM law and the monarchy – I think that’s a source of hope. Though most mass media like to pretend that all Thais love and revere the King, that myth is immediately shattered once you go on Facebook or open a Twitter account, and see the debate about the lese-majeste law (and) the monarchy institution.

Andrew:

I think if (the media) could do (admit that they’re not reporting the entire truth in-country)… it would bring about a kind of change in Thailand, because I think once the government realized, the leaders realize, that the world knows that (they’re) criminalizing discussion of the truth, they’ll be forced to bring about some change…

I understand that the monarchy is limited in what it can do. But I think a few words, to stop some of the madness of this over-application of the law, is something I would like to see one day…

… That’s the way we’ll deal with the crisis. Not by violence, but by open and free discussion. 

Benedict:

This isn’t because of a plot. This is because of rapidly changing urbanization, in media, in new forms of consumerism, so forth and so forth. This means that the space for ‘holiness’, as it were, is really quite damaged. Insofar as monarchies have traditionally had some kind of religious aura around them, this is something that one needs to keep an eye out on.

…Right now you have a political system that doesn’t fit the society that’s really changing… The old system has to adapt itself, or it will be gone.

The final word belongs as yet the panel’s most outspoken. From Ajarn Sulak:

People have no historical connection with the past… King Monkut is supposed to be the wise king – he had more than eighty wives. Don’t you think that people criticized him? Chulalongkorn had his first child when he was only 13 years old – don’t you think the people, they know? Don’t try to idealize. Try to be practical, and realistic…

… You cannot demand loyalty. You cannot demand love. It’s natural. And yet these sort of things are charged all the time.

… If you want to have the monarchy, you must make fun of the sacredness of the monarchy. You must make the monarchy relevant to the modern world.

Lisa Gardner is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. She considers it a great honor to have moderated the event in question. Follow her on Twitter @leesebkk