Recent U.S. Government comments on Thai lèse majesté laws have stirred some controversy within Thailand. Normally a close U.S. ally, Thailand is unaccustomed to the anti-American sentiments common in other supposed allies, such as Pakistan. However, in this situation, American officials are dealing with what may be the most sensitive and difficult issue in the Southeast Asian nation.
In recent decades, freedom of expression has been greater in Thailand than in almost any other Asian nation except, perhaps, Japan. The one big exception to this rule has been the monarchy: any criticism of the king or the royal family is strictly prohibited. We Americans have difficulty sympathizing with this exception, or even understanding it. Our nation originated in the rejection of an already limited monarchy, and in the intentional creation of a system of government through laws. The monarchy, though, was largely the origin of Thailand. The historic Thai kingdoms centered in Sukhothai, Ayuthaya, and finally in Bangkok, grew out of the centralization of feudal nobility under royal authority. On the model of the “wheel-rolling” king of the ancient Indianized states of Southeast Asia, the monarchs of Thailand were invested with divine authority, and this was the basis of their claim to popular allegiance. The king was the country.
Fortunately, Siam, as the nation was known until 1939, enjoyed a series of extremely capable kings. Rama IV, or King Mongkut, was a former Buddhist monk who, after he ascended to the throne, became an astronomer, a polyglot, and an astute political strategist. The Thai will often boast that theirs was the only nation in Asia to avoid colonization, and this was due more than anything to the cleverness of Rama IV in playing the neighboring French and British off against each other. Rama IV also embarked on a program of modernization that included even his own family, bringing in an English governess named Anna Leonowens whose somewhat distorted tales became the basis of plays and movies than many Thai still consider offensive.
Rama V, King Chulalongkorn, continued and intensified the modernization efforts of his father. In the process, the kings created two institutions that would challenge the claim to absolute royal authority: a professional military and the civil service. These two institutions brought about the revolution of 1932, which retained the king but turned him into a greatly revered national symbol, instead of an absolute ruler. Symbols are important, though. For much of the largely farming population, the king remained the nation, regardless of who made policy decisions.
During World War II, Thailand pulled off the feat of being on both sides, an accomplishment that would have made Rama IV proud. The pro-Japanese Thai military allied themselves with Japan, but many of those in the Thai government, especially in the civil service, sympathized with the Allies. The ambassador to the United States, for one, refused to deliver the declaration of war on the Allies, and the pro-Allied faction took power when it became evident that the Japanese would lose the war. Anti-Japanese partisans operated within the country and Japanese soldiers were unpopular. As one older lady told me in the 1980s, “we did not like the Japanese. They had bad manners and they bathed almost naked in public.”
King Rama VIII lived in Switzerland during the war and became a popular image of transcendent unification when he returned at war’s end. However, he was murdered under conditions that still remain unclear in 1946, and his younger brother, Bhumibol Aduljadej (pronounced, roughly, Bpoo-mee-pohn Ah-doon-yah-det) succeeded him as the present king, Rama IX. Now the world’s longest reigning monarch, he owes his near-sacred status to the remnants of the pre-1932 divine kingship, to his status as the key national symbol, and to his personal virtues and good works. The most recent in a series of intelligent and benevolent monarchs, he has mostly contributed to the well-being of his subjects through apolitical development projects, only stepping in to mediate Thailand’s frequent political crises at carefully chosen strategic moments.
Since the king rose to the throne, Thailand has gone through a bewildering variety of administrations and regimes, changing by coups and by elections. A Thai acquaintance once told me: “You Americans are your democracy. We are our traditions.” The king sums up and represents the traditions. This is why the royalty is an exception to the rule of freedom of expression, in somewhat the same manner that the monarch stands above and outside the system of government.
Traditions and nations do change, though. Perhaps the biggest change for Thailand has been the rise of a prosperous middle class. I remember in 2004 when I was lecturing in Paris as part of a faculty exchange between my department and the École des hautes etudes en sciences socials, I was surprised to hear Thai spoken several times on the streets and in the trains. I talked with some of the speakers and found that they were not wealthy jetsetters, but teachers and office workers. You know that a country has achieved a large middle class when its ordinary citizens start showing up as tourists in Paris.
Despite the large and growing middle class, though, the majority of the Thai population remains poor and rural. From 2001 to 2006, the wealthy businessman Thaksin Shinawatra (roughly, tahk-sin shin-ah-waht) served as prime minister mainly with the support of the rural poor. However, suspicions of his demagogical approach to government and his concentration of power alienated much of the urban middle class and parts of the military leadership and his public works program apparently enriched his own companies. He was also accused of insulting the royal house. The Thai military pushed him out in a controversial coup, only to see his daughter, Yingluck Shinawatra (ying-lak shin-ah-waht) elected as first female prime minister in 2011.
Thailand is, then, currently internally divided. Traditionalists see the monarchy as essential for stability. At the same time, the king is now ailing. This heightens anxiety over the monarchy. The heir, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who at 59 is one month older than I am, lacks the king’s wide popularity. This may change once he takes the throne, but at present there are reasons to be concerned once the stabilizing presence of the current king is no longer there.
While some in Thailand favor liberalizing the lèse majesté policies, the response to worries over national stability has been a rash of prosecutions of individuals accused of insulting the royal family, with hefty jail time handed out for what in the United States would be considered constitutionally protected free speech. One Thai citizen received a sentence of twenty years. Perhaps most troubling to Americans, Thai-born U.S. citizen Joe Wichai Commart Gordon received two and a half years for publishing in Colorado a banned biography of the king that he had translated into Thai.
Given the sensitivity of the issue of the monarchy in Thailand, it seems to me that it would be wise for the United States to avoid all public commentary. Condemning what we see as clear violations of human rights will only make us look like we are intervening in that nation’s internal affairs and risk alienating many Thai who may actually oppose the crackdown. We should certainly not abandon our own citizen, but public pronouncements have probably hurt his situation more than helped. It would have been much better to work behind the scenes and make it clear that prosecuting American citizens for things they write or say in the United States can damage U.S.-Thai cooperation. If we want to promote the cause of free speech, rather than indulge in moral display, it seems to me that the best thing we can do is to allow the Thai to reach their own resolution.