Thailand is descending into a climate of fear
June 22 at 8:22 PM
Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, center, holds a light during Wesaka Bucha, the most important Buddhist holy day of the year, at a temple in Bangkok last month. (The Nation/Pool Photo via AP)
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto Universityâs Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is visiting Europe this month. On Wednesday, he held talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London â" to be followed by a stop in Paris on Monday to confer with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Officially, May urged Prayuth to hold âfree and fair electionsâ and to allow political parties to function freely, but itâs clear that the two countriesâ desire to boost trade took the upper hand. Letâs hope that Macron will take a tougher line. Such an intervention is urgently needed â" even if Thailandâs deepening problems arenât solely of the prime ministerâs making.
Last month, a controversial monk, Buddha Issara, was arrested at dawn by a troop of commandos while sleeping in his temple.
The unexpected move sent shockwaves through Thai society, which finds itself facing a new climate of fear ever since King Maha Vajiralongkornâs ascent to the throne in December 2016.
Buddha Issara has been a highly influential abbot among the pro-monarchy faction in Thailandâs deeply polarized politics. Supported by Prayuth, Buddha Issara has been an activist monk, key in instigating the 2013 demonstrations against then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that paved the way for a coup the following year. He is alleged to have employed forces to seize government offices, thwarted elections, extorted money from businesses, detained policemen and even resorted to violence against the opposing political camp.
Such crimes, if proven, would entirely justify his arrest. But many Thais believe that the real motive for the raid â" which could have taken place years ago â" lies elsewhere. Buddha Issara has been accused of engaging in royal forgery, stamping amulets with the royal insignia of the late King Bhumibol without palace permission. Trading in counterfeit royal emblems is a severe crime publishable by up to 20 years in jail.
The alleged royal forgery puts him in a direct conflict with the monarchy â" making it likely that the order for his arrest came not from the generals but from the palace.
Since the beginning of Vajiralongkornâs reign, the governmentâs use of the harsh lÃ¨se-majestÃ© law, which prohibits criticism or disrespe ct of the monarchy, has reached a critical level. In the preceding era, the monarchy had survived mainly because of the success of Bhumibolâs accumulated moral authority. Today, Thailand is ruled by fear under Vajiralongkorn.
While previous cases of lÃ¨se-majestÃ© were brought to the police by defenders of the monarchy, the current trend indicates that Vajiralongkorn himself is wielding the law to protect his own image. Vajiralongkorn has a record of using the law for purposes of revenge. Some of the victims were those in the inner royal circles.
After divorcing his wife, Princess Srirasmi, in December 2014, he used the law to imprison several of her immediate family members. Srirasmi herself has to date been placed under house arrest. The media refuses to report on her for fear of retribution.
When I reported on Srirasmiâs house arrest on social media, Vajiralongkorn instructed his men to harass and intimidate my family in Bangkok. (We can assume this becau se the troops who came to my house served in the kingâs regiment.) They threatened to detain my ailing mother if she failed to tell me to stop writing about his former wife.
Vajiralongkorn has also used lÃ¨se-majestÃ© against three of his close aides, including the famed fortuneteller Suriyan Sucharitpolwong. The men were accused of embezzling from a charity event connected with the kingâs mother. While in jail, Suriyan reportedly died of a blood infection. Of the other two, one committed suicide in prison and another died mysteriously while under detention.
Vajiralongkorn has converted his palace, Dhaveevattana, into a prison â" including, shockingly, a crematorium. Most inmates are convicted on charges related to the monarchy. Media is banned from reporting. Some who died while under detention were cremated there, away from public view. I learned about the crematorium, and the generalâs fate, from a former prisoner in the complex. (Though I currently live in e xile in Japan, I remain in touch with many sources in Thai society who are often willing to share information with a member of the opposition.)
Almost anyone, it seems, can become a target. A student activist was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison under the lÃ¨se-majestÃ© law after sharing a BBC article on Vajiralongkorn shortly after he ascended the throne. Another activist guilty of the same âoffenseâ managed to flee the country before her arrest.
As Thailand heads toward an election, supposedly to be held early next year, Thai royalists are turning to the lÃ¨se-majestÃ© law to eliminate their political nemeses. Vajiralongkorn has worsened the already precarious political situation by legitimizing the use of the lÃ¨se-majestÃ© law as a preferred approach to safeguard himself.
A new political party, the Future Forward Party, led by a young businessman-turned-politician, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, recently came under attack after one of its members proposed an amendment of the lÃ¨se-majestÃ© law. The party was soon forced to distance itself from the proposal.
The arrest of Buddha Issara proves that the palace is ruthless in dealing with its fault-finders. Although Buddha Issara is himself a royalist, his case has made the public realize that nobody is safe under Vajiralongkornâs rule.
The lÃ¨se-majestÃ© law is a black hole at the heart of Thai democracy. It is also counterproductive to the royal family. Other monarchies in the world have survived into the modern era by adapting. The Thai king, by contrast, is contesting modernity by clinging tightly to an anachronistic law. Nothing could be better calculated to drive the monarchy into unavoidable decline.Source: Google News Thailand | Netizen 24 Thailand