All the King’s Men

As Thailand’s heavy-handed government continues to stifle dissent, a rebel reporter learns that the most dangerous form of censorship is when it starts to feel normal.

All the King’s Men

As I huddled with a group of colleagues at an undisclosed small private library in central Bangkok one recent evening, it suddenly dawned on me that I have unknowingly, if reluctantly, become a part of my country’s censorship culture.

For those who are unfamiliar, Thailand’s draconian lese majeste law forbids people from defaming or insulting the king, queen or heir apparent, with a maximum prison sentence of fifteen years. A form of the law dates back to before the revolution of 1932, when the system of absolute monarchy was transformed into a constitutional one. However, it was very rarely invoked until 2006, when a military coup staged in the name of saving the throne ousted the elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and ushered in an era of political instability and civil unrest.

The stepped-up enforcement of lese majeste is in line with the current government’s efforts to control what information Thai citizens can and cannot access. Censorship here extends to tens of thousands of URLs, as well as some YouTube videos that are blocked by the authorities. And there is virtually no space for public criticism of the Thai monarchy or the role the royal family plays in society.

Earlier this year, anti-coup activist Ekachai Hongkangwan, who sold copies of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation television documentary about the monarchy at a political rally in Bangkok, was sentenced to three years and four months in prison. A magazine editor, Somyos Prueksakasemsuk, is serving ten years for two articles he claims were written by a contributor—a former cabinet member in political exile abroad, having himself escaped prosecution under the same law for an earlier speech in Bangkok. An old man who set up a secondhand mobile bookstore at political gatherings is the latest “criminal” in the process of being charged for allegedly selling books defaming the monarchy.

As I pen this article, roughly ten people are behind bars under the law—at least that’s how many we know of. The list of former prisoners of conscience under the law also includes nationals from the United States, Australia, Switzerland and Singapore.

Back to that evening of epiphany: at a secret venue chosen to host a small group of activists, journalists and filmmakers, there was a screening of several short films critical of the monarchy, the official religion (Buddhism), and nationalism in general. I’d gotten a phone call from the organizers who told me to quietly come and not inform anyone else of the location; only those in the know, who could be completely trusted, were invited. And still, at the end of the night, I found myself warning organizers and filmmakers that some of the films they had just shown us could land them in prison under the lese majeste law.

I openly acknowledged on that early September evening that the most fearful form of censorship is when it has become internalized and normalized by citizens—even citizens who oppose the laws. And I reluctantly have become one of these people by giving such a warning about the consequences of disobeying the law.

This is not new, however, because every time I write or speak about the lese majeste law or the monarchy I have to censor myself in order to avoid landing in prison. (I have never been in prison, nor do I ever plan to be.) And this article that you are reading—even though it is primarily for foreign readers in the United States and beyond, and even though I promised to be as personal, frank and reflexive as I can be—is no exception.

So our culture of censorship has evolved into a culture of self-censorship. While I openly condemn and challenge the law that has shut the ears and eyes of the Thai public, I also cooperate, doing my part by not speaking and not writing as frankly as I would love to.

Every evening at eight p.m., all the major free television networks in Thailand broadcast “royal news activities” for thirty minutes. Bookstores stock titles praising the king as a genius at practically everything he does, from music and painting to irrigation, invention and more. Large posters praising the king and queen adorn the fronts of buildings throughout the kingdom, while many citizens keep portraits of the royal couple displayed on the walls of their home. The giant revolving LCD panel atop Thailand’s tallest building, Baiyoke Tower II, in the heart of Bangkok’s tourism district—akin to New York’s Times Square—repeats the messages “Long Live the King” and “Love Live the Queen” in Thai and English, every night, in between ads for phone companies and a hotel—the perfect marriage of commercialism and cult of personality.

So, not only is the current government, under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, unwilling to touch the law or amend it to bring it in line with international standards of freedom of speech and expression, but a large percentage of the population seems to possess an insatiable appetite for positive-only information that glorifies their king and queen.

If Buddhism doesn’t have God, these Thais who claim to be Buddhists will invent one, so they can worship him, and the current king has almost become a God-like figure to them. It is as if they yearn to be proud of someone beyond any doubt. And to ensure that it’s beyond any uncertainty, the very act of doubting the king and queen in public must be made illegal and carry severe punishment. Even the most prominent leader of the royalist movement was recently sentenced to two years in prison for verbally reproducing the defamatory remarks made by an anti-monarchist.

Even with the king in frail health at 86—having reigned since 1946, he is the world’s longest reigning monarch—and his successor, the Crown Prince, much less popular than his father, the vast majority of the mainstream media pretends there are no concerns or unease about the future of the Thai monarchy.

I am among a handful of Thai journalists who keep warning the public about the risk of not subjecting the monarchy to realistic appraisal, scrutiny and criticism, as they do in the United Kingdom, Spain and elsewhere. You can’t possibly expect society to stay sane and functional if the most influential person in the country is completely off-limits to even the subtlest forms of criticism. (Criticism of Buddhism, meanwhile, remains sensitive but not unlawful.)

I keep reminding the public of the steep price to be paid for overt glorification of the monarchy, which is reminiscent of North Koreans’ cult-of-leader worship. But it mostly falls on deaf ears. We can’t make much noise, for when I last counted, there are no more than five mainstream journalists who dare to speak out. For the most part, they are all well-educated and dedicated reporters, like Achara Ashayakachat of the Bangkok Post, who are not in senior management positions and therefore don’t receive any direct backlash from advertisers. But they all experience the same problem: once you speak out against the law, your career prospects are definitely at risk. You become a black sheep. There is no CIA-style disappearance or liquidation, as far as I am aware; but the most effective form of censorship is that which makes people feel that they still have freedom.

On Twitter, where I often protest the lese majeste law, I have endured all forms of abusive responses, ranging from users calling me “un-Thai” or “China man” (while both of my parents were born in Thailand, I am ethnically half-Chinese), to labeling me a traitor to the nation, brainwashed by Western education, “liberty maniac,” and the son of a whore. One anonymous Twitter user  who hinted that he is a soldier threatened to harm me and my young relatives while many simply told me to leave the kingdom and live elsewhere if I wasn’t happy.

In February of last year, Vorajaet Pakeerat, a leading constitutional law lecturer at Thammasat University in Bangkok, was physically assaulted by two men in the parking lot of the university. The two men later confessed to the police that they attacked him because of his prominent stance in igniting the public campaign to amend the law. Vorajaet suffered from minor bruises and was soon discharged from the hospital. Thirty-seven years ago, on October 6, 1976, dozens of student protestors from the same university never made it home alive—accused of being communists and wanting to abolish the monarchy, they were lynched to death by a mob of ultra-royalists, their bodies repeatedly humiliated and beaten in broad daylight. One particular photograph encapsulates what was arguably the darkest day of modern Thai history: It shows a sophomore male student hung to death by the angry mob on a tamarind tree; a man hurls a metal folding chair towards his lifeless body, while many members of the mob stand on and watch.

Last year, an ultra-royalist cited seven of my commentaries that appeared in Thai on alternative on-line newspaper as alleged violation of the lese majeste law. The police decided not to pursue the complaint made against me, but only after a thorough questioning and an ordeal that lasted a year. The prosecution, however, can revive the case anytime they wish.

And so the majority of the press has chosen to stick with the status quo—it’s risk-free, at least for themselves. Never mind what might happen to Thai society, which claims to be democratic but is unable to discuss its own issues critically. As I earlier wrote on alternative media outlet “Thailand is like a sick man who cannot discuss his own medical condition fully and openly. Like a patient who needs surgery but does not dare undergo medical examination, diagnosis and treatment, he waits bitterly, grudgingly and confounded as the pain mounts and the situation becomes increasingly untenable.”

In 2010, shortly after the government of the previous Prime Minister of Thailand, Abhisit Vejjajiva, claimed there was a conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy, nearly a hundred mostly unarmed anti-government protesters were killed. I was at the demonstrations a number of times, surrounded, under the cloak of darkness, by a sea of demonstrators who wore no masks—they hid by their sheer mass. On the night marking the four-month anniversary of the killings, I saw that much anti-monarchist graffiti had been painted on a temporary construction wall next to the rally site where a building was burned in the aftermath of the protest and killings. But none of the mainstream media dared to report on it. Those written messages were quickly removed and painted over, as if they never existed.

I believe the media has to take sides. They have to side with the truth, no matter how ugly, complicated and ironic it may be. Alas, many prefer to play it safe, and if they are critical of the Thai monarchy at all, they do it through gossip—in private, behind closed doors, among friends and colleagues whom they can trust, at clandestine film screenings like the one I attended last month.

So I am a minority, a black sheep among the media and the millions of Thais who are addicted to the incessant glorification of their king and queen. I take comfort in the fact that there are some other citizens who do oppose the law; more than 30,000 signatures were gathered in a failed bid to amend it last year. The president of the parliament refused to bring the petition up for discussion for fear of being branded as an anti-monarchist or even accused of wanting to overthrow the monarchy. And few foreign states are willing to publicly support the call to amend the law, so democratic-minded Thais have only ourselves to depend on.

The author himself. (Photo courtesy Pravit Rojanaphruk)
The author himself. (Photo courtesy Pravit Rojanaphruk)

If we can’t have genuine freedom of expression in my lifetime, I will try to be one of the few who will chronicle this dark era of excess and paranoia while pushing for the limits of what the law would allow. For the past two years, I have been using Twitter to bypass certain levels of newspaper self-censorship to test the limits and, as a result, have endured near daily hate speech in an attempt to shut me up. Instead, these ultra-royalists have succeeded in reinforcing my recognition that I am facing a force of reactionary fear that borders on neo-fascism.

And so I simply do what I can to make Thailand a freer and better place. We are fighting for our posterity, in hopes that, one day, Thais will speak freely and will not have to see things in black and white, given one-sided information like animals being fed at the trough. Gains may be incremental, but more and more Thais are becoming aware of the absurdity of this censorship.

All I ask is for people to be treated with respect and allowed to express critical views. This would be in line with what we call ourselves: a democratic society. And while I know I have to censor myself, even while writing these words to you, I am also aware that to submit myself to such a predicament without resisting is tantamount to forfeiting my soul and humanity.

The other option is prison or exile—and Thai prison is no Hilton or Holiday Inn. Although, in a sense, my country is already a giant prison of conscience, particularly for those who want to speak and write freely and publicly.

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Alexis Frederick-Frost spends too much of his time bent over a drafting table or squinting at a computer screen in his small apartment in Philadelphia. He illustrates the Adventures in Cartooning series of graphic novels and draws a monthly cartoon about the exploits of a worldly wise cat and ever eager dog for a British comic magazine. Sporadically he posts drawings @afrederickfrost.