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MEDIA-THAILAND: A Critic May Now Look at a King

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 18 2006 (IPS) - Age has not softened the rebellious streak in Sulak Sivaraksa, a unique voice in Thailand’s intellectual landscape. He risks landing in jail by airing his views on the country’s deified royal family, protected by strict lese majesty laws.

The May edition of ‘Seeds of Peace,’ a journal of ideas that the 73-year-old Sulak publishes, illustrates this irrepressible side of a man known as a fearless social critic and a respected Buddhist scholar. It has reproduced in English an interview he gave late last year to a Thai-language journal, ‘Fah Diew Kan,’ that got its editor into trouble for Sulak’s critical views of the monarchy.

On Wednesday night, at a packed session on ‘The Monarchy and the Constitution’, Sulak appeared as unbowed as ever. ”The monarchy must be open to criticism, must go along with democracy, must not be sacred,” he said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT), in Bangkok. ”I feel if the monarchy is to survive, we must be able to speak more of the truth.”

These are comments that, both Thais and foreigners admit, take courage to express. So also were Sulak’s responses, in the controversial interview, to such questions as, ”Can Thai society criticise the monarchy from other perspectives,” ”If the monarchy cannot be criticised, what will be the effects on Thai society” and ”Does the king know that his projects are a failure in practice?”

”He takes risks every time he speaks out,” David Streckfuss, an American academic specialising in Thai political culture, told IPS. ”He is trying to make these issues part of the normal discourse.”

”People who are conservative royalists will think he is terrible,” Sumallee Virayaidyai, a former journalist and a member of a committee that drafted the Thai constitution in the 1970s, said in an interview. ”He is unique. There are others who may think like him but they don’t speak out due to fear.”

This fear stems from the law of lese majesty, which is in force to protect the reputation of the ruling monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and his family and are among the tightest in the world. Thais and foreigners who violate the law can, if found guilty, face a prison term of up to 15 years.

Sulak has been charged twice, in past decades, for committing lese majesty by making comments deemed to have hurt the king’s reputation. So has Sumallee, who was charged for the crime in 1973 and had to apologise after being given a two year suspended sentence.

The issue of lese majesty has gained increased prominence of late due to the political uncertainties that have gripped this country after anti-government protesters took to Bangkok streets in February and a questionable parliamentary poll that followed in April. Sondhi Limthongkul, an outspoken media mogul who led demonstrators against the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai – TRT) party, which has governed the country since 2001, has been served with 37 lese majesty charges.

The normal chain of events surrounding a lese majesty charge begins with a complaint lodged by any Thai citizen to the police about an act committed by word or deed by another that tarnishes the reputation of the monarchy. Members of the royal family are not part of this process.

With the exception of two years – in 2002 and 1993 – the past 21 years have seen regular cases of lese majesty charges filed against Thais and, on occasion, foreigners. It has consequently created a chilling effect, censoring views in public discussions, debates and reportage in the media out of fear of the penalties that await the guilty. Even powerful Western media organisations that champion the cause of press freedom elsewhere kowtow to this law.

In fact, the charges made against Sondhi for allegedly bringing the monarchy into disrepute during his anti-government crusade this year amplify a point Sulak has been making as a lone voice for a free, open and critical Thailand. ”This law has been used against people who are critical of the government,” he said during the discussion at the FCCT. ”This law protects those in (political) power. It does not protect the citizens. They can use this law against anybody who does anything against them.”

Studies bear this out – of Thailand’s several military dictators since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 (and other figures in authority) taking cover behind the law of lese majesty to target their critics. Sarit Thanarat, one such dictator who began his term in the late 1940s, gave the law of lese majesty a new life and made it more severe, in a Thailand struggling to become a democracy.

”Sarit used the monarchy as a tool to protect his dictatorship since he had no legitimacy whatsoever,” says Sulak in the interview that has provoked controversy, with the Thai editor of the journal where it first appeared being charged with lese majesty..

Yet, since December last year, Sulak has found an unlikely ally in his quest to place this South-east Asian country’s monarchy within the spirit of democracy, subject to regular questions and criticisms – King Bhumibol, himself. During his annual birthday speech, which attracts a large following, the 78-year-old monarch appealed to his subjects to be critical of his actions.

But, while such views were hailed by the local media, there has been no hint in the press of Thais willing to act on this appeal. The custom of venerating Bhumibol – who in June celebrates his diamond jubilee on the throne – has continued. This culture includes speaking glowingly of the royal family, decorating their shops and homes with photos of the monarchy and getting down on all fours, in a sign of worship, when in the presence of the king and queen.

Sulak, himself a monarchist, welcomes the message conveyed in that unprecedented speech. ”I hope once we have good government this law (of lese majesty) is abolished,” he said. ”We must have more criticism and I am glad that the present king agrees with that.”

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