The American-based global NGO Freedom House last week downgraded the Kingdom of Thailand from "partially free" to "not free." This is not good news for those of us who love the country. Unfortunately, it seems to be justified.
Much of Thailand has seen increased "security" precautions in place since the Red Shirt-Yellow Shirt confrontations in 2010 and 2011 - bulked-up police and military forces, more visible than usual. Rumor says that many of the Red Shirt leaders -- those who were calling for the overthrow of the current government -- have been in hiding ever since the disturbances, and that one of the purposes of the security escalation is to catch them before the elections currently scheduled for July.
But the primary reason Freedom House changed Thailand's status had to do with the touchy subject of monarchy.
For decades, Thais have revered the King and Queen. Their portraits hang in virtually every house in the land, and the popular love for the King, especially, is so deep it's difficult to understand it outside Thailand. And, in fact, the 83-year-old King Bhumibol, who is the world's longest-reigning sovereign, has been an extraordinary monarch, tireless (until recently, when age has made him frail) in his people's behalf.
During the riots, the protestors were careful to distinguish between the elected government, which they opposed, and the royal family, whom they revered, or purported to. Recently, though, questions have been raised about whether the King -- a Constitutional monarch with enormous moral and ethical influence but little actual power -- was neutral in the overthrow of the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who was elected prime minister by a landslide but was thrown out of office in a coup while he was abroad.
The traditional Thai power elite -- mostly Bangkok, mostly Thai-Chinese -- has relied for years on the monarchy being sacrosanct. It was the one thing that could never be challenged, and they have taken a position directly behind it, secure in the belief that the somewhat unusual laws protecting the monarchy would also protect them.
Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code prescribes prison terms for those who defame or insult the monarchy. This article is being invoked with ominous frequency lately.
- A respected Thammasat University professor was recently hauled to the police station to hear charges read against him -- apparently at the insistence of Army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha.
- The Thai Election Commission has imposed a ban on all discussion of the monarchy in campaigning leading up to the July elections.
- A national cyber patrol has been set up to monitor the Internet. Several people have been arrested, with prison terms ranging from 13 to 70 years, and some estimates place the number of banned sites in the thousands.
- Another Thai academic has been charged because of a book he wrote criticizing the coup against Thaksin, despite the fact that the book was not directly critical of the monarchy.
With a very dramatic election coming up, it seems inescapable that the lese-majeste laws will be used as a weapon against those who are challenging the government, a catchall response to criticism. And behind the lese-majeste laws stand not only the power elite but also the sometimes ominous weight of the military.
Not good. Not good at all.
Tim -- Sunday