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Thailand on the Edge – Again

by Joshua Kurlantzick
January 6, 2012

Thailand's PM Yingluck Shinawatra pays respect in front of a portrait of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok. Thailand's PM Yingluck Shinawatra pays respect in front of a portrait of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok (Rungroj Yongrit/Courtesy Reuters).

Having just returned from Thailand, I found that the country, which nearly succeeded in destroying itself in 2010 and early 2011, seems determined to continue trying to do so in 2012. As anyone who follows Thailand (and its independent news sites like Prachatai) knows, despite the election of the Puea Thai party there have continued to be a staggering wave of arrests for lèse-majesté (LM) in recent months. What’s notable about these arrests, as the excellent Thai commentator Pavin Chachavalpongpun notes, is that the LM attacks have moved beyond a tool to blunt and ostracize political enemies and have become a weapon by royalitsts to attack average people who have little connection, if at all, to Thai political discourse. The LM crackdown is now approaching McCarthyesqe levels of vindictiveness and outright nuttiness in the “evidence” presented to supposedly convict someone of the crime.

The most notable of these arrests, of course, was the jailing – and twenty-year sentence –of an elderly Chinese-Thai man for allegedly sending four text messages critical of the king. The accused claimed he had no knowledge of the messages, and barely knew how to work text messaging. But academics in Bangkok privately say that many more LM cases are coming, but have been kept quiet for several months as the authorities pursue the claims. A group of academics have quietly tried to convince the authorities to drop some of the cases, which include cases against young university students. Alas, thus far the authorities do not seem interested in dropping any of the cases. The mood, among many academic and liberal circles in Thailand, can only be compared to that of activists in a truly authoritarian country like Burma or Vietnam; the level of fear among Thai activists is equivalent to what I have seen in these other nations, which Thailand of course holds itself high above. But not any longer.

I feared for the future of Thailand in 2010. I fear even more for its future today, as the LM campaign has broadened beyond elite political battles to become a broader war for society. I also wonder why, if the royal institution in Thailand is devoted to free speech – the king memorably said that he was not above criticism – it does not use its right to pardon LM “criminals” en masse?

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