Thailand’s democracy problem: it’s a King thing

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.

Huge images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Huge images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

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.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej t-shirts, Bangkok, Thailand

King Bhumibol Adulyadej t-shirts, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Poster of Queen Sirikit, Bangkok, Thailand

Poster of Queen Sirikit, Bangkok, Thailand

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.

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

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.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej t-shirts, Bangkok, Thailand

King Bhumibol Adulyadej t-shirts, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

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.

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

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…

3 thoughts on “Thailand’s democracy problem: it’s a King thing

  1. Pingback: Thai dictatorship jails theatre makers for play | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Yes, you are probably right. Most analyses I’ve read indicate the King’s shadow behind most coups… A shame really, but then Thailand being Thailand, coups tend to be very “polite”: the deposed Prime Minister is invited to present herself to the new junta. And she goes. Then she and the government all resign and politely stay a few months in a residence… (Not that I justify the coup of course. ‘sides our youngest daughter was right there at the time, in Chang Mai. Just weird)
    And I’m also thinking of bloody coups can be in Africa. Thailand is certainly a weird country. But still on my traveling list.
    Take care Paul.

    • Hey Brian,
      Very true, Thai coups could be a lot worse. I guess what I find dispiriting is that they happen at all. History is not with the Junta, but old habits die hard it seems. I genuinely think that the suppression of democratic, accountable institutions now leaves the country open to much bigger problems in future. I hope not, but…
      Hope all’s good?
      Paul

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