Brian Pellot: On Freedom Institutions Opinion

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

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

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Such laws seriously undermine freedom of expression and are as outdated as the monarchies and dictatorships they shield.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

About the author

Brian Pellot

Brian Pellot is based in Cape Town, South Africa.

9 Comments

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  • “Like the country’s blasphemy laws protecting Buddhism from insult, Thailand’s lèse majesté laws should be scrapped.”

    Exactly.
    Dictatorships are fundamentally theocratic religions. “Kill the blasphemer” is the defensive position of every dictator since the beginning of history; including Moses, Mao, Hirohito, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and Jesus himself:

    “Don’t throw your pearls to unholy pigs!” – JESUS (Matthew 7:6)
    “Execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

  • Go into any Thai restaurant in the U.S. and you’re likely to see a pic of the saxaphone-playing monarch behind the counter. The Thais are an exceedingly practical people but they don’t allow you to muck with the King. I suspect in that regard they are where the Japanese were before 1945. Thanks for reporting what I figured was happening anyway. While they could learn from us how to better approach fundamental freedoms, we could sure learn from them how to treat trans folk and sex workers better than we do. The business about how the right-wing nuts have a cow when a transwoman steps into the loo like she’s gonna flatten your grandmother is the sort of stuff that makes the Thais think we are all amuk over here.

  • These are sorry little generalizations that in no way apply to All Thai people, for anyone who is paying attention. So not beheading gays makes up completely for guys in prison for 50 years for a Facebook post? This is not only vapid but disproportionate on a nearly unimaginable scale.

  • My friend, you are the one making the generalizations, not me. Of course not every Thai is exactly the same just as every American, every Greek, and every Zambian is not the same. And Of course I did not say “not beheading gays makes up completely for guys in prison for 50 years for a Facebook post.” I did not even mention gay men at all, or facebook. If anyone is making an overgenralization, it is you.

    Have you ever heard of The Marquis de Sade? The somewhat unconventional fellow was definitely not a sexual sadist, he just was a bit of a libertine who took advantage of his servant girls to the disliking of his strict mother-in-law, who was a noblewoman who had the power to issue a “Letter of Marque” against him which resulted in his imprisonment for the rest of his life. And yet we still think of France as a model of freedom.

  • Thailand has some people who are willing to speak out but really very few. It’s basically controlled by brainwashed cult members. Thais will often try to defend the royals but their case is only built on lives of propaganda as that’s what the Thais royal institution forces into the media, schools and the rest of the institutions. Not alternative information or views. And if you don’t go along with the cult and speak out well you’re an enemy of the nation.

    I’ve spent 20 years here. In the beginning I was apathetic to much of it just enjoying the everyday pleasures but over time I’ve taken more interest in what’s really going on. It’s a sad state. I won’t look at Thais in the same way especially those in my nation the US who enjoy free speech while they take it away from others in Thailand.

    Freedom speech and an end to the privilege system would end Thailand’s out-of-control corruption and give hope to the masses. The royals and their cronies don’t want this.

  • Thanks for the article. I think you need a deeper dive to understand what is going on in Thailand. I have only been studying Thailand for 20 years and lived in Bangkok 5 years. Thais have an expression “mai bpen rai krub” which means it doesn’t matter. Your article goes off track by suggesting that the current regime is the only one that prosecutes people for Lese Majeste. PM Thaksin used it against his opponents and they used it against him and his family, and its been used by regimes before WW II. Another expression in Thailand, “His Majesty the King does not “play” politics. That means Thais know their politicians are corrupt and nothing really gets done by them to improve the lives of Thais. HM the King has no political power. There have been many constitutions which most Thais could care less about. They do care about HM the King, and think of him as a father and that is their private business really. HM the King generally pardons most foreign violators on his…

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