Why Thailand’s demigod king and military junta are cracking down on ‘blasphemy’

Thailand’s lèse majesté laws shield a deified king from criticism, an outdated monarchy from reform and a military junta from accountability.

Where they’re still on the books and enforced, “lèse majesté” laws (French for “injured majesty”) protect regents and heads of state from insult or offense.

Such laws seriously undermine freedom of expression and are as outdated as the monarchies and dictatorships they shield. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in Thailand, where King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning living monarch, is approaching his 70th year on the throne, besting Queen Elizabeth II’s marathon reign by more than five years.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej

A poster of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in central Bangkok on March 16, 2014.

Unlike in Britain where it’s now quite acceptable to criticize and satirize QE2 (my favorite example being the fake Twitter account @Queen_UK), criticizing Thailand’s royals is still risky business.

In March of this year, a Thai military court sentenced a man to 25 years in prison for “defaming” the king on Facebook. That was the longest known lèse majesté sentence in Thai history until August, when another man got 30 years for similar online crimes.

Lèse-majesté acts, which carry a maximum 15-year jail sentence for each count, were rarely prosecuted in Thailand until a military junta backed by the king seized control of the country from elected officials last year. As the king’s health declines and uncertainty about his succession (and the country’s direction) grows, the laws are being applied more frequently and severely to discourage political dissent.

A New York Times story this week, which the local distributor deemed “too sensitive to print” in Thailand, outlines what’s at stake and how the deification of King Bhumibol is hindering free expression:

The ruling generals have been aggressive in jailing critics of the monarchy and this year alone are spending $540 million, more than the entire budget for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on a promotional campaign called “Worship, protect and uphold the monarchy.” The campaign includes television commercials, seminars in schools and prisons, singing contests and competitions to write novels and make short films praising the king…

…“The current anti-monarchy movement is due to the very fact that the monarchy is now made into almighty god,” said Sulak Sivaraksa, a social activist and scholar who has been charged or arrested five times for his outspokenness about the king. “The more you make the monarchy sacred, the more it becomes unaccountable and something beyond common sense.”

The article goes on to describe a ritual in which some Thais crawl before the king and call themselves the dust under his feet.

Such behavior is expressly encouraged in Thailand’s constitution, which states: “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.” The criminal code specifies: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”

In other words, King Bhumibol is a god, and insulting him is blasphemous.

Opposition barricade Bangkok

An opposition barricade in Bangkok on March 16, 2014.

At a time when many Thais are debating and navigating the monarchy’s function and future, doing so has become riskier than ever. Which is exactly the junta’s intention.

Like the country’s blasphemy laws protecting Buddhism from insult, Thailand’s lèse majesté laws should be scrapped. All citizens should be granted the freedom to democratically determine whether they wish to “worship, protect and uphold the monarchy” without the government misallocating half a billion dollars on this desperate propaganda plea.