Writing about Thailand

Created 22nd January, 2006 08:09 (UTC), last edited 25th September, 2006 11:17 (UTC)

I've long debated with myself about what exactly I should write about the country that I now live in. As a foreigner living here it is certainly the case that I don't have the same rights enjoyed by the subjects, although developing restrictions under the new military junta makes most of this a moot point.

Although the old constitution guaranteed freedom of speech, in practice there were always a number of laws that limited it. There are two main areas that the law (and to a certain extent established practice) restricts what I may say on the subject of Thailand:

  1. No criticism of the king;
  2. Say nothing that brings the country into disrepute¹ [1I don't have any clear reference to this, but I have been told on many occasions (including by people close to the immigration authorities) that violations of this sort are monitored and tracked — for an example see the Reporters sans frontières quote lower down.].

Lèse majesté

Although I can't imagine anybody having anything bad to say about Bhumibol Adulyadej (ภูมิพลอดุลยเดช — pʰu:mipʰon adunjadeːd, King Rama IX) the law has often been used by politicians to silence criticism² [2They seem to find this especially useful when it allows them to ban irritating foreign media. The Economist fell foul of this in their last survey of Thailand. It said very little about the King, but openly criticised Thaksin.The current junta leaders have claimed disrespect of the King by Thaksin as one of the reasons for the coup and in the past year's political battles accusations of lèse majesté have been flying thick and fast.]. Of course the problem isn't that anybody would actually want to criticise the King, it is that it isn't even possible to discuss the issue without falling foul of the lèse majesté laws.

In his birthday speech in December 2005 CE the King made reference to this part of the constitution. He complained that zealous use of this law was causing him to look bad in the international community (specifically he said that Thailand's human rights were questioned due to the lack of freedom of speech) and that if he were to do wrong then he would much rather hear about it so he could do better in future. This appears to be a direct criticism of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who famously doesn't take criticism at all well.

It seems that the King did manage to force Thaksin to stop using him as cover for his own litigious pursuit of freedom from critics, but it isn't exactly clear what the King's position is politically. According to reviews of a new book about the King, The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej³ [3The book was banned in this country under the old administration. As of September 22nd, 2006 CE we still see this page inside Thailand.], it isn't entirely clear that the King believes democracy is right for Thailand. This is a serious matter and deserves discussion within Thailand, but that discussion can never occur.


I suppose that any criticism of the country, its culture, or its government could be taken badly (or even just a description that wasn't glowing) and this could lead to being slung out of the country. I'm not sure how the legal proceedings would go, but as I have to leave the country every ninety days (even with a visa) they'd simply have to refuse me re-entry with no reason given [4Reporters sans frontières 2003 report on Thailand states "Lt.Gen. Hemaraj Thareethai, head of the immigration police, confirmed on 21 February the existence of a black-list of 46 undesirable foreigners in Thailand who risked deportation for being supposed threats to national security." This is Thai government speak for undesirable foreigners who have criticised the institutions of the monarchy.].

Even an article like this carries with it an implicit allegation that Thailand isn't free at all (the name of the country, somewhat ironically, literally means Land of the Free).

In most respects I've felt that if I cannot say whatever I please then maybe I'm best off saying nothing at all. However, with events unfolding as they are I think that avoiding saying anything isn't really an option.

It always seemed a shame to me that the Thai constitution was so weak in practice and that authorities ignored most of the provisions. I think a large part of that is the rights the constitution enshrined (to do with freedom of speech and privacy particularly) are just not well understood here [5For examples of the problems of partial free speech I've already written about the laws surrounding discussion of the King. On privacy matters local civil servants (for example) will happily show personal records of others as examples of how to fill in forms. They see this as a helpful service, rather than what is really an unwarranted intrusion.].

September 22nd, 2006 — Freedom of speech and assembly

The junta of course will do their own thing in practice. They have banned political assembly and protest, but so far media commentary (positive and negative) has been allowed. They've also stopped short of blocking the Internet and phone calls (although I believe that they were blocked for some hours during the night of the coup) so although TV news is scarce (at least in English — the satellite provider is not yet broadcasting CNN and BBC News 24 again) keeping in touch on-line is still very simple.

This evening there is an anti-coup protest scheduled for central Bangkok. Personally I think I am happy to give the new leaders the two weeks they've asked for and see what the situation is after that. But this doesn't mean of course that I don't support the protesters' right to make themselves heard. I've signed an on-line petition to that effect.

September 23rd, 2006 — The demonstration was allowed to go ahead un-molested. I can't help but think this is an excellent sign.

September 25th, 2006 — It seems that one protestor at another location (The Siam Square shopping area) may have been arrasted.