S.E.A. View

Three years on, room for Thailand's royal critics shrinks further

BANGKOK • A seasoned businessman once told me: "Never forget that Thailand is a kingdom."

These days, his words seem to ring louder, as the reach of monarchy and its supporters widens over the country.

Thailand, technically a constitutional monarchy, marks its third year under military rule on May 22. Even before that, it has already crossed another milestone: More than 100 people have been arrested for insulting or defaming the royal family under this period of military rule. As of Monday, at least 64 people are in jail, either after conviction or awaiting trial for this offence, says the International Federation for Human Rights.

One of them is human rights lawyer Prawet Prapanukul, who was detained by soldiers and police in an early morning raid and then accused of 10 counts of lese majeste for his Facebook postings.

Asean's second-largest economy after Indonesia is going through a major transition. It is trying to grow high-technology industries to fob off competition from emerging manufacturing hubs. It is putting the finishing touches to a legal framework crafted to keep future governments in line, before the elections expected some time next year. And millions of Thais will bid farewell to revered late monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej, in an elaborate cremation ceremony on Oct 26, one year after his death.

But the coup-installed military government has also steadily erected new defences in social media to keep out criticism of the monarchy. Amendments to its computer-related crime law will come into force later this month, requiring social media and Internet service providers to, upon government request, delete or block content deemed to have distorted data or caused the public to panic - among other broadly worded offences.

While unable to directly remove content on Facebook, the Thai authorities are now prosecuting people for "sharing" offensive postings. Last month, it warned that contacting or "following" someone on Facebook - which allows a user to be updated about someone else's postings - could be a crime. This threat applied specifically to those in touch with three exiled critics of the junta and monarchy - historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, political scientist Pavin Chachavalpongpun and former Thailand-based journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall.

Journalists in the kingdom often have to check themselves to avoid falling foul of the lese majeste law, which carries a jail term of up to 15 years on each count. Even then, their space to manoeuvre is shrinking.

A panel discussion about a missing historical artefact hosted by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand last week was shut down by the government, for posing "a threat to national security".

The case itself is a mystery, involving a mostly neglected brass plaque the size of a car's hubcap in a historic section of Bangkok. Planted flush with the tarmac on a plaza by a throne hall and Parliament building, it marked the spot where the leader of a group that staged the 1932 revolution declared the end of absolute monarchy.

Some time early last month, the plaque disappeared, and was replaced by another celebrating the monarchy. Under mounting public query, state agencies denied being the owners of the 81-year-old plaque. Police said they could investigate only if its owner lodged a complaint. They even accused a politician of breaking the law over his Facebook comments on the issue.

The controversy unwittingly stirred discussion about the 1932 revolution, bringing into sharp relief the assertive new reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The 64-year-old monarch, after all, has asked for revisions to Thailand's 20th Constitution, which was enacted last month. Several senior palace staff have been removed.

And in a new law that was recently passed by the interim Parliament behind closed doors, five agencies dealing with palace administration and security were put under the King's direct control. These agencies will continue to be funded by the state, but need not return any revenue they generate to the treasury.

In comparison, the power of the then Siamese monarch was whittled down so much immediately after the 1932 revolution that the royal veto of laws could be overridden by a simple majority in the legislature. The King then was reduced to a figurehead vis-a-vis the new ruling elite.

The pendulum is now swinging the other way, aided by generals increasingly prepared to rein in critics of the monarchy.

•S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2017, with the headline 'Three years on, room for Thailand's royal critics shrinks further'. Print Edition | Subscribe