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Will Thailand’s Lèse Majesté Arrests Backfire?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
May 12, 2011

A Thai national flag flutters in the wind behind a statue of King Rama VII in front of the parliament building in Bangkok, May 10, 2011, ahead of a July 3 election.

A Thai national flag flutters in the wind behind a statue of King Rama VII in front of the parliament building in Bangkok, May 10, 2011, ahead of a July 3 election. (Sukree Sukplang/Courtesy Reuters)

The New York Times today has extensive coverage of the recent police summons of Somsak Jeamteerasakul of Thammasat University for alleged lèse majesté charges. Now, of course, Somsak’s summons is but one of many of a wave of lèse majesté charges aggressively being pursued by the military and other royalists in the run up to the election being held soon. The trend of summons and arrests has grown from concerning to outright catastrophic for Thailand’s open discourse, which is one reason why the country has plummeted on global rankings of press and Internet freedom. (See, for example, the recent Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2011.)

The question now is at what point this growing lèse majesté crackdown backfires; the Times, and many local blogs and listservs, are beginning to suggest that whatever royalists are gaining from their use of lèse majesté, they are actually costing the monarchy in prestige–especially future prestige once the king has passed away. The more the monarchy is used as a political tool, then conversely, the less it will be seen as above politics, part of its essential appeal to many Thais. The fact that the lèse majesté campaign may have hurt the monarchy’s broader appeal will matter much more once there is a king who has already demonstrated that he does not follow many of the precepts that have attracted Thais to Rama IX, and thus has less personal appeal to draw upon.

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