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Khon Kaen-based scholar David Streckfuss recently completed a seminal book on lese majeste law entitled “Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, treason, and lese-majeste” published by Routledge. He answered questions by Pravit Rojanaphruk about lese majeste law and more. Excerpts:  

1) Many people who support lese majeste law say Thailand and its monarchy is unique thus the law is needed. What's your view?

The most obvious question to ask is: “If the Thai monarchy is so loved, why does it require one of the most draconian lese majeste laws of recent world history?” So yes, the institution may be quite unique, and so is the law protecting it. But in many cases, the law is in direct conflict with the democratic aspirations of many Thais. To believe something is unique tends towards a sense of exceptionalism, which easily leads towards becoming blinded to universal and historical trends elsewhere.

2) Some Thais claim foreigners do not and cannot really understand Thai society. Is your book yet another example of a portrayal of Thai society from a 'naive' outsider's perspective?

These days, I’m not so sure that anyone really understands what’s going on in Thai society—Thai or foreigner. The discourse on Thailand and Thai-ness has drifted into terra incognita and as such perhaps no one has a privileged perspective any more. As for the book, I think it does pretty well in appreciating and characterizing the historical roots of “Thai” perceptions of the truth. The conclusions the book draws are a descriptive analysis of this very “Thai” system confronting modern, largely universal legal norms and human rights discourse. I wouldn’t argue that the book’s perspective is “the right one.” It is merely one perspective, but one that I hope will resonate for some who live in Thailand—both Thai and foreigner—and who sincerely want the best for this country and its people.

3) Many decades ago, Thai mainstream media used to report and write critically about the monarchy institution. Today, they exercise self-censorship on anything deemed even mildly critical without any qualm. How do you explain it?

There are a number of factors that might explain the change. One cause certainly is the increased penalty for lese majeste. After the 6th of Oct. massacre, the military dictatorship of the time increased the penalty to a minimum of three and a maximum  of 15 years in jail for each count—a penalty that is more than twice as high as during the absolute monarchy. Most importantly perhaps is that since the early 1960s, much of the movement toward democracy was reversed and there was a re-sacralization of the institution. This shift made it increasingly difficult to address a whole series of political, social, economic, and cultural issues, depriving Thailand of much of the artistic and intellectual dynamism it might otherwise have had. The chilling effect of this law on the media is undeniable. But the mainstream media seems to have also failed in fulfilling its historical task of fighting for greater freedom of expression.

The German press in the 1890s, for instance, showed a remarkable feistiness at a time when there were more than 500 cases of lese majeste on average per year. A number of newspaper editors would be jailed for a year or two, be released for a few days, challenge the law again, and be thrown right back into jail. Sometimes it is said that government repression in Thailand is understandable given that Thailand has been democratic for only 80 years. German democracy in the 1890s was even younger, and yet the media showed its verve.

Thailand cannot claim to be democratic while at the same time arresting and trying hundreds of people for freedom of expression. It might be clearer were Thailand to emulate Myanmar, ignore international human rights standards completely, and simply say that “Thai-style democracy” is one where the military can act with wanton impunity, freedom of expression on certain key issues is non-existent, and amnesties conveniently expunge the past.

4) Why Thai society doesn't seem to be able to come to a censensus over lese majeste law?

In the 1970s, the right tore Thai society apart by accusing its opponents of being “communists” or “communist terrorists.” Now the ultimate act of treason is republicanism or even not showing absolute loyalty to the highest institution. Today’s Thai conservatives are too eager to bundle together republicanism, those who want to reform the monarchy, and even those who question the lese majeste law. Under these conditions, consensus is impossible. Instead, Thai society continues its historical tendency to demonize. Thailand has been divided into patriots and traitors.

5) Some royalists believe that without lese majeste law, the royal institution will become unstable. How realistic is such concern?

If it takes the lese majeste law to suppress criticism, expression of opinions, and public scrutiny—the hallmarks of any minimally functioning democracy—then the system is already precariously unstable. It is the lese majeste law itself and its use creating this instability, for it masks the truth or reality of the situation. I believe that Thai society, although already battered and divided, could survive and perhaps even flourish by a strong dose of the truth. It strengthens no public institution when society cannot exercise public reason. Those who want to protect the monarchy from public scrutiny weaken the institution and endanger its future.

6) Is there anything particularly unique about the recent arrest of Prachatai on-line newspaper's director Chiranuch Premchaiporn under lese majeste law?

Chiranuch’s arrest indicates a worrying trend in lese majeste arrests. First, the police admit that they had a warrant for her arrest for as long as a year before actually seizing her at the airport. They claimed that they had to use this tactic because of the seriousness of the crime. Well, if it was so serious, the police had plenty of time to arrest her in her office where she was arrested last year. But instead, she was arrested while returning to the country from abroad. She is probably the fourth or fifth person to be arrested in this dramatic and needless manner. Second, this is probably another example of the increasing use of a double lese majeste-computer crimes charge.

7) Given His Majesty's advancing age, and concerns over the succession of the throne and the current political crisis, will there likely be more lese majeste charges made?

Unfortunately, it appears that in all of this political turmoil, lese majeste has become the preferred charge against political opponents, especially against the red shirts or those perceived to be red-shirt sympathizers. The law has now become more than just a latent threat. Over a five year period—from 2005 to 2009—there were 430 cases accepted the Court of First Instance in Thailand, which handed down 231 decisions. Another 39 were received by the Appeals Court, and 9 by the Supreme Court. The number of lese majeste cases has skyrocketed under the present administration, to historically unprecedented and incomparable numbers—164 cases went to trial in the Court of First Instance in 2009. Such a vigorous use of a law for non-violent word crimes and against freedom of expression makes hollow Thailand’s claim to being democratic. And, of course, use of the law will continue to counter any attempts at reconciliation. In fact, it is the law and its use that comprise one of the chief roadblocks to reconciliation.

8) In your book, you wrote about Thai elites having “ossified Thai ‘culture’ into a mythical time". Why are they so keen?

I argue that the entrenched culture of impunity has had a serious effect on the way that Thai society perceives the truth. The repeated coups, amnesties for perpetrators of murder, and general degradation of the laws and judicial system especially after the late 1950s so tortured and twisted Thai society and politics that simple truths became unrecognizable. Often this arrangement was supported by what I interpret as misdirected state-supported Buddhism which eagerly urged the victims of violence to forgive and move on. But the accumulated effects of denying historical truth have exacted a terrible price by allowing the next massacre to emerge. Thai history was essentially suspended in time, into a repeating monotonous melodrama of heroes and villains. It was under such a scheme that the defamation laws—including lese majeste—became paramount, and clearly showed a reversal in democratization. When the 1997 constitution jolted Thai history into movement, the old power structure acted to re-suspend history by backing the 2006 coup. But, as events have shown, the 2006 coup was the one that many did not accept or forget.

Actually, this is encouraging. There needs to be a massive historical reckoning. Forgiveness has its place, but only after the truth has been told, the perpetrators of murder have been identified, and Thais have a chance to deal with what has happened—whether it is Dusun-nyor incident, 6 October, Black May, Tak Bai, and now, April-May 2010. Amnesties don’t change the fact that overthrowing the government in a coup or shooting unarmed civilians is against the law. In other countries citizens have pushed to address past cases of impunity. The lese majeste law and other defamation-based laws have made it difficult, but not impossible, for an aroused public to begin the process of this great historical reckoning.

9) Is lese majeste law related to the creation of a hegemonic notion of Thainess? How?

Beginning more than a century ago, great efforts were made to paper over ethnic and religious divisions. Later, other divisions, like economic and educational ones, were papered over with incessant calls for national unity. It was a grand effort, and it worked reasonably well for a century. This entire historical construction resulted in the notion of “Thainess.” Since 1960 when Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat revived the monarchy ideologically, and especially since 1976 when the monarchy had become fully re-sacralized until just recently at least, love of the monarchy became the central tenet of Thainess. One regrettable aspect of this process is that Thainess became paramount, largely at the expense of everything else. So when the concept of Thainess begins to crack and fall apart piece by piece—as it seems to be doing now—it is understandably frightening because there is little else out there to unite people in Thailand. Coups have stripped constitutions or a respect of rule of law of any meaning. There is no tradition of dealing with difference. The judicial system for many Thais is not the last resort. But in the process of reckoning with history and allowing truth to come out, it is possible that a new identity and unifying principle may emerge.

10) What is the most surprising discovery you made in the process of researching and writing up the book?

One of the most surprising things about the book is its relevance. When writing my dissertation in the 1990s, I was teased by graduate school friends for choosing such an irrelevant topic as defamation and lese majeste. Even when Routledge agreed to publish the book, lese majeste was still not very newsworthy. At the time, former prime minister Thaksin Shinwattra was engaged in a defamation spree unequalled in Thai history. So when lese majeste popped back into the news in late 2005, and has with each year accelerated in relevance, it became a very hard book to finish! I finally chose Darunee’s sentencing of 18 years in prison as a fitting end point. Another surprising discovery was the huge number of lese majeste cases since 2006, and the mind-boggling silence on the issue of most human rights organizations, both foreign and Thai.

11) Is your book being banned in Thailand?  

I wouldn’t think so! Why ban it? I don’t believe that the contents of the book violate the lese majeste law or the country’s defamation laws, and is not contrary to good public morals and order. I believe that it may give pause to the wiser and more far-sighted royalists who truly have the institution’s long-term interests in mind. It is a serious academic study that makes an attempt to explain the serious divisions in the country, and suggests a number of ways to move forward democratically and as a constitutional monarchy. Of course if the book was banned, it would prove the central thesis of the book that the powers that be, and significant swaths of Thai society, can’t deal with different perspectives. But what would be gained in banning the book? No, I believe in a future Thailand (or rather, Siam) that is democratic, one that can deal with difference and new ways of understanding what a good citizen can be.

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