The ancient and hoary crime of lese majeste, or insult to monarchy, is in the West a quaint old relic of the days when a king could lop his wife’s head off with one hand while eating an enormous turkey leg with the other. A time when princes were routinely murdered in towers and when “Will no one rid me of that turbulent priest” wasn’t a lament over Cardinal Roger Dodger Mahoney’s shenanigans, but a potential order to kill an Archbishop of Canterbury. In short, it’s no longer valid. (Certainly, the Queen of England, given the fact that it seems harder to rein in Her Majesty’s wayward sons and grandsons, probably wishes it were — just to give her a moment’s peace from the latest bombshell in News of the World or The Sun…)
In Thailand, it’s the law. And it has engendered harsh censorship, an intellectual burden on the Thai people.
Just try to access over 1000 websites on Thai servers, and perhaps as many as 3000, according to the BBC (Thailand itself once cited the number as being as high as 4,800) all of them critical of the Thai King, Bhumbibol Adulyadej. Good luck at that, as they’ve all been blocked by either the Thai government sub rosa (legally, the Thai government can’t block web content without a court order), or through the help of overzealous Thai ISPs. At least 12 bloggers sit in Thai prisons right now, on charges that they made statements that defamed the king. Harry Nicoladies, a Australian author, was arrested and thrown in a Thai prison, before the King pardoned him. He had faced three years in the notorious Klong Prem prison for these words:
From King Rama to the Crown Prince, the nobility was renowned for their romantic entanglements and intrigues. The Crown Prince had many wives major and minor with a coterie of concubines for entertainment. One of his recent wives was exiled with her entire family, including a son they conceived together, for an undisclosed indiscretion. He subsequently remarried with another woman and fathered another child. It was rumoured that if the prince fell in love with one of his minor wives and she betrayed him, she and her family would disappear with their name, familial lineage and all vestiges of their existence expunged forever.
For those few sentences, in a book that had a print run of about 50 and sales of seven, Nicolaides faced arrest the moment he stepped onto Thai soil, and imprisonment for up to 15 years. He was shackled in irons and treated like a violent murderer. He was consigned to the notoriously posh, lavish, and oh-so-human-rights-abiding Thai prison system. For what? For daring to make a crack about the infidelity of the Crown Prince of Thailand. For words that, if spoken about a US President, would spark a national debate and impeachment proceedings, not a jailterm for the author. For words that if “King Rama” and “The Crown Prince” were replaced with “Henry VIII” would be an excerpt from a history book, not an actionable statement. CNN and the other spineless twits in the Western media whitewashed the story, fearing that the Thai people would lynch their staff in Bangkok. In December and January, The Economist disappeared from Thai magazine racks — first because of a pair of articles about the King’s role in politicsincluding a number of political coups including the 2006 coup that toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (not surprisingly, one of the charges levelled against him was lese majeste) and brought a military junta to power, with the tacit support of Bhumbibol Adulyadej himself, and then a second one concerning l’affaire Nicolaides .
Yes, folks, among the manifold definitions of “lese majeste” in Thailand is making factual assertions about the King and his role in politics, or reporting on a newsworthy and noteworthy story about a prisoner of conscience who “insulted” His Majesty.
And the police have to take every invocation of lese majeste seriously, according to The Economist, which, of course, makes it a great tool for silencing one’s critics. Just find any peg you can to hang a charge of “insulting the King” in your opponent’s statements, and there you go.
Of course, the Thai people think it’s a problem with us, those ignorant, racist redneck foreigners who have no respect for tradition or their god-king, when we have the unmitigated gall to get snippy over mere human beings being thrown into prison for speaking their mind. The King’s supporters, showing their own utter contempt for what the civilized world thinks, have posted videos on YouTube, for instance, that essentially say “to Hell with free speech.”
Well, then, to Hell with the King of Thailand. Seriously. If people are not allowed to criticize their leaders, no matter how revered, then the leaders are no leaders at all. (While we’re at it, to Hell with Barack Obama. To Hell with George W. Bush. Have I covered all the bases?) Bhumbibol Adulyadej, Rama XI, or whatever the Hell we’re supposed to call him is no less a two-bit cult figure than Kim Jong-il, a sacred cow in gilt whose every utterance is supposed to be an apple of gold, apparently. His image is omnipresent. Before every movie, audiences must stand and pay respect to him. One can’t even do a normal act such as step on a coin to stop it if dropped, because it bears his august face on it. And God help you if you’re a fan of The King and I… Granted he may not be as ruthless or paranoid as Kim, but his personality cult is as worrying. And I hate personality cults. I had stomach upset hearing the chants of “O-BAM-A! O-BAM-A!” during the inauguration.
I’m not for sacred cows. Open a sacred abbatoir. Turn ’em all into sacred hamburger. Nothing is so important or revered as to be unable to stand up to criticism or mocking, even robust criticism. If one cannot speak freely about his political system, if one cannot speak freely about her leaders, if one cannot speak freely about the political system, there is no freedom. You cannot have freedom without the fundamental right of being able to speak about important issues without fear of arrrest.