Thailand, monarchy and free speech

Thailand is one of the hottest tourist locations in Asia. Apart from being home to plenty of tourist attractions, it also has to deal with the problem of a booming sex tourism trade which is leading to a variety of problems , not least of which is a spread of the HIV. Nevertheless, the tourism industry is one of the greatest contributors to the Thai GDP, contributing almost 20 percent to it. Thai food is also an attraction, and authentic Thai cuisine in itself is enough of a reason to make a pilgrimage to Thailand for.

It also is a place of historical significance, being the only South East Asian country to not have come under any imperialist influence, among other things. In many ways, that seems to have a flip-side. Apparently there has been no motivation for a popular revolution in Thailand, which might make it a tempting idea that people have not felt like changing the system. This would seem to be true, if there weren’t any coups by the military, and if the democratically elected leader of the executive weren’t arrested on corruption charges. Even though the country is effectively run by a military junta, there has been no dismantling of the monarchical system of governance. Officially a constitutional monarchy, the political system in Thailand is seriously lacking in credibility. After Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide, and landmark, victory in Myanmar recently, which is likely to make it more difficult for the military to control policy making, Thailand, being another South East Asian country, can probably take heart. However, there is a difference. As mentioned before, Thailand is a monarchy, unlike Myanmar. The monarch might not be making policy decisions, but he is nevertheless the figurehead. Named Bhumibol Adulyadej, he is the longest reigning monarch in Thailand’s history. Quite a feat.

There is a problem though:

Screenshot from 2015-11-09 12:04:04I found this in the newspaper Bangkok Post. Needless to say, I found it quite striking. There are lèse majesté laws in Thailand, which means that no one in Thailand has the right to say anything that offends the monarch. A clause in their constitution says: “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.” This is basically deification of an individual. An individual is above all criticism, by virtue of being the symbolic leader of the nation. This is definitely against democratic principles. For one thing, a monarch is not democratically elected. There is not a whit of evidence that the monarch at all cares about the welfare of the people. As Jack London very evocatively mentioned in his 1902 book The People of the Abyss: “There is a Chinese proverb that if one man lives in laziness another will die of hunger; and Montesquieu has said, ‘The fact that many men are occupied in making clothes for one individual is the cause of there being many people without clothes.’”, describing his emotions while witnessing the extravagant coronation of a new king in England. He knew what it was like, having experienced the plight of the people of the streets and in the workhouses in London himself. The other thing is that such a constitutional dictate has the potential to be abused. What constitutes offence towards the king is very vague, just like the sedition laws in India.

You could argue that Thailand is a high HDI country. But that doesn’t say anything about the poverty and disease that plagues the country. It doesn’t say anything about the desperation of the women who are driven into the sex trade, and who end up either contracting, or spreading HIV. It doesn’t say anything about the communal violence that people who are on the lowest rungs of the survival ladder experience. As I have opined before, such statistical measures rarely take individual factors into account, and hence tend to be seriously flawed sometimes. But coming back to my point, in a country which could use more equitable distribution of its wealth, lavish spending on retaining an undemocratic figurehead is a bit rich. What’s worse is that one cannot point out this flaw in their system if one wanted, because they would be prohibited by Thai law to do so. This kind of cultism persists in quite a few countries, most notoriously in North Korea. Whenever you are supposed to “worship” a mortal, you know things are not right. In the 21st century, monarchical systems are anyway out-of-place, if not unseemly. I really do hope that the Thai people have something to say and do about this. Like the Nepalese people did.

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