Lese Majeste in Thailand: The Enemy of Democracy

February 28, 2009

Last week I hosted an event at LMH with Associate Professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok with the above title. Giles is a Marxist scholar of Thai politics and society as well as an active political campaigner. In 2006 he wrote a book called A Coup for the Rich (pdf), which criticised the 2006 military coup. Recently he was charged with lese majeste for his remarks about the monarchy in this book. This law carries a possible jail term of 15 years. Giles subsequently fled Thailand and has relocated to Oxford.

My report on the event can be found at New Mandala; it was also recorded and the audio file can be downloaded here. Apparently the report is being translated into Thai by the Pachatai online news site. Giles’s appearance has caused lively debate on New Mandala and there is some good feedback on my report including from those who felt too frightened to speak up. Apparently one government official and one embassy official were present to record and monitor the event and naturally this, along with the universal jurisdiction of lese majeste, has a chilling effect on free speech even outside Thailand.

It only dawned on me a couple of days ago, well after the event, what the consequences might be for my ability to visit Thailand and conduct research there. Probably nothing, of course – I am rather too obscure and utterly inconsequential from Bangkok’s perspective. Having said that, an Australian citizen, Harry Nicolaides, was jailed for lese majeste and only released a few days prior to Giles’s talk, and his “crime” was to have written a novel, of which a mere fifty copies were printed and only seven actually sold. But there are signs that the Thai government has learned from this case about the dangers of zealous implementation vis-a-vis foreigners (Thai offenders, meanwhile, are left to rot in jail). In any case, it wouldn’t have affected my decision to hold the event, even if I had thought about it at the time.

The reasons for this are fairly straightforward, as I made clear at the event. First, any and all attempts to limit free speech and academic freedom are attempts to impose one set of interests and ideas as truth without debate. Yet, as Mill taught us, the truth is not something we know a priori but something which only emerges through debate and the rigorous testing of ideas – in Mill’s ringing phrase, ‘through the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners’. I would defend Ungpakorn’s academic freedom even if I completely disagreed with what he thought – as I have done in the past.

As it happens, I do agree with what he thinks. There is very little in A Coup for the Rich that anyone particularly well acquainted with Thai history and politics can disagree (even if you disagree with his class-based analysis – which I don’t). And actually, the book is far, far harder on the Thai left than it is on the monarchy. Arguably it says nothing about the king that others haven’t already (like Paul Handley, in his book, The King Never Smiles); and indeed it actually seeks to put the monarch’s role into perspective by arguing (contra Hanley) that the king is not some all-powerful individual but rather someone whose aura and legitimacy are cultivated and exploited by others. That seems to me to be fundamentally right. The book is also right about the historical points it makes, like Bhumibol’s support for the army’s bloody repression of the Thai left in October 1976. That was well understood at the time and is documented in numerous books, including Benedict Anderson’s The Spectre of Comparisons (1998), where I think I first read about it.

Update: the report has now been translated into Thai. The original piece has already generated a very long and lively debate at New Mandala.

posted in academic freedom, free speech, thailand by Lee

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5 Comments to "Lese Majeste in Thailand: The Enemy of Democracy"

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Lese Majeste in Netherland, Is it The Enemy of Democracy?

  2. Anonymous wrote:

    You said “I am rather too obscure and utterly inconsequential from Bangkok’s perspective”. Have you seen today’s Bangkok Post website?
    Obscure no more.
    http://www.bangkokpost.com/breakingnews/137344/puea-thai-oxford-says-no-to-pm

  3. Red and White wrote:

    Mr Jones,

    I am pleased to have found your blog and website, I’m only surprised I didn’t discover it sooner, though I am familiar with your work on the esteemed New Mandala blog.

    You touch on many issues on which we are in agreement, but because I am located in Thailand it would be unwise for me to comment on all of them. However, please allow me to express my profound disagreement with you on the tone of your letter to Sir Michael.

    You strongly imply that there is a link between the rise to power of the Democrats and the PAD street protests. This in itself is a fallacy; the PPP were removed from power because of the outcome of judicial procedures that began well before the street protests were underway. Whilst there may be talk of a ‘judicial coup’ , it should be noted that the verdict of the courts was aired publicly over several hours, and there is no evidence to suggest that the Democrat Party had any sway over the verdicts. Therefore, I think it is highly unjust to imply a direct link between Aphisit’s promotion and the court verdict.

    With regards to your comments on the PAD wanting: ‘an end to universal suffrage and an unelected PM’, this is a wildly embellished paraphrase. I attended a press conference with Kasit – the politician you describe as ‘a PAD leader and now foreign minister’ – and the policies of the PAD were discussed. At no time was an unelected PM suggested or even implied and the only nod towards ‘universal suffrage’ was a suggestion – and it was strictly highlighted as a suggestion only – that a person’s voting power could be affected by how much tax they pay. Kasit was also careful to distinguish between his role as a Democrat and a PAD supporter. Indeed, he was only a supporter and not one of the seven PAD leaders as you suggest.

    As a minor aside, Chidchob Newin is in fact Newin Chidchob.

    I stress I do not wish to defend the actions of the PAD, but I do want to express my disagreement with your approach to Aphisit’s speech at Oxford, as I sense you wish to encourage a cancellation. I feel your approach is similar to those who disagreed with the appearance of Nick Griffin and David Irving at Oxford Unions some time ago i.e. by utilising an undemocratic approach to counter a perceived anti-democrat. Rather than attempt to stop Aphisit speaking,why not confront him with your concerns?
    Thanks again for your work, it is particularly enlightening to read thoughts from a fellow teacher of your calibre and I look forward to reading more.
    Greg

  4. Anonymous wrote:

    [i]”Although it is understandable given his education at St John’s, I do not believe it is appropriate to ask someone like him to address the Oxford community on the subject of ‘democracy’. [/i]

    well said

  5. Anonymous wrote:

    I wondered where you have been hiding Greg, you have gone very quiet on the Nation weblog, I guess since Yoon started to attack the current military appointed government you have felt less appreciated.
    I notice you refer to judicial procedures, most informed people call it a “judicial coup”, not just “may be talk”. Of course the Democrats had no sway over their verdicts, it was the controllers of the Democrats that had the sway. You not only know this but you know who they are.
    I won’t use a name, for obvious reasons but you know who I am:-)

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