Debate and dissent are forbidden under Thailand’s new military dictatorship. After seizing power in May, the junta swiftly issued multiple decrees banning criticism of its actions and detained outspoken journalists and academics.
Even asking questions is frowned on. For instance, two reporters were rebuked for their supposedly aggressive efforts to seek answers from coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha at a press conference. “Do not ask in such a manner again. And please understand Gen. Prayuth’s good intentions,” Army Secretary Maj. Gen. Ponpat Wannapak told them. “The press should cheer him on.”
This crackdown on free speech should not surprise. But what ails Thai democracy goes beyond the obvious and repeated repression by the Thai military. They are rooted, rather, in the throne of ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the oligarchs who sit behind it.
The Thai military has a long and baleful record of crushing Thai democracy and dishonestly denying doing so. In 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010, troops were involved in the massacre of unarmed protesters in Bangkok. Official investigations whitewashed the army’s crimes. A crackdown on anti-junta demonstrators, called red shirts, in April and May 2010 sparked violent clashes in Bangkok, with more than 90 people killed and 1,800 wounded. Afterward, the military made the extraordinary claim that it was not responsible for a single death or even any injuries, despite official statistics showing soldiers used 117,923 bullets, including 2,500 sniper rounds.
This threat of coercive violence is corrosive to Thai democracy. Shutting down discussion of how Thailand should be governed and hiding the truth about the political struggles that have shaped the kingdom’s modern history can only worsen the conflict that has convulsed the country since 2005. The escalating crisis in Thailand is a struggle to find consensus on answers to profound questions. How should democracy work in Thailand? Do all of Thailand’s people deserve equal rights? What does it mean to be Thai? These are issues that cannot be avoided as Thai society evolves and becomes increasingly aware and sophisticated. The country’s people need to seek answers that will heal their bitter divisions and allow Thailand to move forward. There is only one sensible way to find answers to such important questions: Thailand’s people need to talk.
But for decades, a suffocating silence has been imposed on Thailand because of draconian enforcement of the archaic lese majesty law, which punishes perceived criticism of the monarchy with up to 15 years in prison. From early childhood, Thais are taught that throughout history, the nation has been uniquely blessed by the leadership of heroic kings who care for their people as a father cares for his children. Bhumibol, 86 years old and reportedly in poor health, is portrayed as a godlike genius with a heart of gold who has single-handedly brought progress and development to the nation through more than six decades of tireless effort while scrupulously staying out of politics. Any attempt to challenge this absurdly hagiographic narrative is demonized as an attack on Thailand’s ancient traditions and sacred monarchy and criminalized. For decades, journalists and academics have mostly avoided detailed discussion of the monarchy, unwilling to risk being jailed or losing access to the country.
By failing to mention the royal dimension of Thailand’s turmoil, the international media are not only doing a disservice to their audience, but they are also badly letting down the people of Thailand.
But it is quite simply impossible to explain Thailand’s contemporary conflict adequately without addressing this unspoken problem, because the Thai crisis is fundamentally about the monarchy and its role in society. Moreover, a central element of the conflict is an unacknowledged royal succession struggle among competing elite factions over who will be the next monarch after Bhumibol dies. The reason Thailand’s unfolding tragedy tends to appear so incomprehensible to outsiders is that a crucial part of the story is routinely left out. No credible analysis of Thailand can ignore the taboo subjects of royal succession and palace intervention in politics. As a result, anyone writing about contemporary Thailand faces the extraordinary predicament that telling the truth about the country’s recent history or politics can be done only by breaking Thai law.
A disservice to Thais
Thailand’s elite — made up of aristocratic families with ties to the palace, top generals and tycoons — exploit the lese majesty and defamation laws to avoid scrutiny of their machinations and accountability for their actions. As Chulalongkorn University professor Pasuk Phongpaichit observed, “Despite economic growth, massive social changes and political innovations like parliament and decentralization, real power still lies in the hands of small groups of people who run things in the dim background.” The understandable reticence of journalists and scholars to risk breaking the law has allowed Thailand’s oligarchy to remain in the shadows and prevented open debate about the country’s political future.
But with Thailand being ruled by an oppressive military junta determined to silence discussion and facing the looming trauma of a profoundly destabilizing royal succession, there is no longer any excuse for the international media to avoid telling the full truth about Thailand. The political and social conflicts that have engulfed the country will not go away just by being ignored, and if they are not resolved through discussion, they will be settled in blood.
By failing to mention the royal dimension of Thailand’s turmoil, the international media are not only doing a disservice to their audience, but they are also badly letting down the people of Thailand. If they were to collectively resolve to accurately report the full story, the lese majesty law would be unsustainable. Thailand’s authorities would face a stark choice between launching a catastrophic legal campaign against the massed ranks of the foreign media and taking a more sensible approach toward freedom of speech.
A growing number of scholars and reporters are breaking the taboo on open discussion of Thai truths. In 2006 journalist Paul Handley published a brilliant biography of Bhumibol, “The King Never Smiles,” revealing Thailand’s secret history of palace scheming and royal shenanigans. In 2011 I resigned from Reuters after 17 years as an international correspondent because the company refused to publish my analysis of U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks that revealed that the royal family and Thai elite were riven by conflict over who will succeed Bhumibol. Several leading Thai academics, like Giles Ungpakorn and Pavin Chachavolpongpun, have chosen to live in exile so they can speak openly. In July anthropologist Christine Gray announced she too had decided to stop allowing the lese majesty law to silence her. “It’s time for everyone to step over the line,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “It’s neither honorable nor justifiable for us to remain selectively silent.”
For as long as fundamental truths about Thailand are denied by the elite and unreported by the media, the military and its allies can continue to eviscerate Thai democracy with impunity. To help Thailand’s people at this perilous moment, the best thing we can do is simply tell the full truth, fairly and fearlessly.