Joshua Kurlantzick's article (Bangkok Blues, May 22, 2012), while trying to present a comprehensive analysis of Thai politics, has made a number of misleading points, regarding which the record must be set straight.
First, one argument that keeps recurring in Mr. Kurlantzick's article is that the Thai royal family and its so-called network, including the military, have continuously wielded their influences to shape the politics of the land. Here, it must be emphasized once again that the Thai monarchy is above partisan politics. Its role is clearly stipulated in successive Thai constitutions, to which His Majesty the King has always conscientiously adhered. Other than his "moral authority," the King has no formal power and hence exerts no control over the direction of the country's politics. Therefore, to argue that the Thai royal family has been interfering with politics is clearly misleading and highly inappropriate.
Second, Mr. Kurlantzick demonstrates his misconception about Thailand's lèse-majesté law. The law, as provided for in Section 112 of the Thai Penal Code, gives protection to the rights or reputations of the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent, or the Regent in a similar way libel law does for commoners. It is not aimed at curbing people's rights to freedom of opinion and expression nor the legitimate exercise of academic freedom including debates about the monarchy as an institution. Legal proceedings in such cases, including those of Mr. Lerpong Wichaikhammart (Joe Gordon) and the late Mr. Amphon Tangnoppagul (Akong), were carried out in accordance with the rule of law. All of them have been accorded due process as provided by the Thai Criminal Procedures Code including the right to fair trial, due opportunity to contest the charges and assistance from their lawyer as well as the right to appeal.
Lastly, Mr. Kurlantzick's choice of language to describe Thailand and its democracy is highly inappropriate. As with many other countries on the path towards a full-fledged democracy, Thailand has had to face many challenges. Be that as it may, if one looks at all the transformations that have taken place over the past decades, it must be said that democracy in Thailand is maturing in the right direction. With each challenge, the Kingdom has emerged stronger with its democratic institutions more resilient.
I hope you will publish this letter in order to provide your readers with a broader and a more fact-based perspective about Thailand.
Minister Counselor, Royal Thai Embassy
Joshua Kurlantzick replies:
Unfortunately, though in theory the embassy's comments on this matter are correct -- that the monarchy is a constitutional monarchy like Britain's or Holland's -- in reality Thais, and all observers of Thailand, know the situation is far different. Of course, truly open analysis of the monarchy in Thailand is not possible, as the lèse majesté law stifles all serious debate, but the two most acclaimed scholars of the monarchy, Duncan McCargo and Paul Handley, have shown in great detail how the institution, over time, has played a significant role in partisan politics, dating back to the restoration of the monarchy's power during the time of former ruler Sarit Thanarat. Were the lèse majesté law not in place -- and enforced vastly more harshly than any other similar statute in the world, as shown by the thorough analysis of the law by scholar David Streckfuss. I am sure that nearly every Thai studies scholar would admit that the monarchy, in playing a role in politics, is far different from those of Britain or Holland today.
In addition, the embassy's rebuttal related to libel is incorrect. The lèse majesté law is not like a libel law; in libel, a person who feels they have been slandered can file suit against the alleged libeler. But with the lèse majesté law in Thailand, unlike in most other monarchies, anyone can file suit against someone who allegedly committed lèse majesté. It's not just the king, queen, regent, or other royals who need file the suit. Thus, even though the king has on several occasions indicated that he believes the lèse majesté law is too harsh, and has pardoned many alleged offenders, Thais continue to file lèse majesté suits against other Thais -- even though the person allegedly at issue in the suit (the king, queen, or another royal) is not directly involved. As scholar David Streckfuss has shown, Thailand now sees more suits like this than any country in the world, by far. Moreover, these cases have been rising steadily over the past decade, and Thailand's application of the law is harsher than that of any nation in history, save perhaps late 19th century Germany. Further study shows that most of the cases filed are lodged over political disputes or against a wide range of the most outspoken, liberal academics, scholars, and students in Thailand. There can be no doubt that the lèse majesté law, whatever its original intentions, is now the principal weapon of curtailing free expression in Thailand.
Is Thailand "maturing in the right direction?" No impartial analysis of the country seems to think so. While once known as a regional bastion of free discourse, Thailand's ranking in the major indices of press freedom, like those compiled by Reporters without Borders, as well as its rankings in analyses of online freedom, have fallen so badly that the country now stands amid some of the most repressive dictatorships in the world -- and no longer among what would seemingly be comparable democracies. Overall, in fact, a survey of the three leading annual evaluations of democratic trends worldwide -- Freedom House's index, the Economist Intelligence Unit index, and the Bertelsmann Foundation index -- finds that Thailand's democracy has regressed badly over the past 15 years. Today, Thailand once again seems poised on the brink of serious backsliding, with protestors, courts, and potentially the military prepared to overturn yet another elected Thai government.
Finally, I would ask the embassy one simple question, to judge their claims. Would anyone in the embassy be willing to return to Thailand and take part in an open, potentially critical dialogue on the future of the monarchy? I am sure that, worried about their own safety, no one would take up my offer.