I should be careful what I write. Free speech has strict limits in Thailand and criticising the nation’s monarch, intentionally or not, can have grave consequences. Thais love their 87 year old king, but those who hold dissenting views know only too well what can happen for expressing their opinions. Thailand’s draconian approach to freedom of expression has seen plenty of foreigners imprisoned as well.
I’d like to visit Thailand again, so the fate of others should be ample warning. Still, it is troubling when a nation has large photos of a figurehead in every public space. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a modern-day Big Brother, and there is more than a whiff of a cult of personality crossed with Animal Farm-style politics. The lèse majesté laws which protect the king and royal family from criticism serve to stifle debate and democratic development.
I thought this royal devotion benign, but in reality it’s sinister. Imagine this: a man is accused of insulting the king, he insists he’s innocent, there are no witnesses but he’s imprisoned anyway. It sounds like Orwell’s 1984 but it happened for real in 2013. In 2014 the editor of a news website was imprisoned for an article published five years earlier in 2009. He was originally sentenced to 10 years but got half that for pleading guilty.
In 2007 a Swiss national was sentenced to 10 years for defacing a poster of the king; in 2009 an Australian was sentenced to 3 years after self publishing a book considered insulting to the monarchy, the book sold seven copies; the same year a British national fled the country rather than face trial after criticising the 2006 military coup; in 2011 an American was jailed for posting pages online from a book critical of the King. The list goes on.
It’s no surprise then that Thailand is currently run by a military junta that seized power, with the blessing of the king, from an elected government in 2014. The coup came in the wake of pro-military and anti-government protests calling for reform. The military continue to run the country under martial law and dozens of people remain in prison on jumped up charges.
Throughout his six decade-long reign, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has witnessed twenty military coups or attempted coups by an army that is profoundly monarchist. Throughout these turbulent times the King has been seen as a stabilising force. It’s true to say that he’s had a unifying effect, helping explain the number of images of him that you see everywhere.
There are plenty who would argue that the king himself, while respected and loved, has been a major cause of the depressing failure of democracy. Most coups against democratically elected governments have been carried out in his name. Such is the reverence for the King that his role is rarely questioned, but he has never criticised the use of military power against his own people.
The fragile stability this brings may be about to end. The King has been ill for several months, forcing him to miss a number of important public occasions. Many Thais and foreign observers fear that when he dies the thin barrier to violent societal upheaval may be shattered. Protests will likely be met with military repression, and Thai democracy will take another giant step backwards.
With no sense of irony, a few days ago the military-controlled legislature banned the former Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, from holding political office for five years. Simultaneously, they launched a criminal investigation into her time in office. That beach holiday suddenly seems less appealing…