The darker side of lese majeste

Last Sunday in the article "The Brighter side of lese majeste", we discussed how Thailand is changing. Social media and information technology allow us to obtain information and discuss ideas more openly than ever before.

While the lese majeste law won't be reformed any time soon, Thai people are developing a consciousness, forming an opinion and making a stance _ and that is progress. However, if the end goal is to change Thai society so that it embraces the democratic principles of freedom and human rights, we're going about it the wrong way.

We should set an example for constructive debate, framing the dialogue in the context of culture and history, not just ideology. But instead, in Facebook wars and face to face, even the most educated among us mindlessly sling mud and engage in one-upmanship. We show a lack of empathy and vainly presume that we are always correct and anyone with a differing opinion is absolutely wrong and ought to be ridiculed. The emotional commitment to our cause gets the better of our rational judgement.

Thai PBS's Tob Jote political talk show, which featured a five-part series on the role of the monarchy, is a fine example of two intelligent, respectful individuals engaging in a rational, constructive discussion. It's an example we all should follow.

If the end goal is to change Thai society so that it embraces democratic principles, then it stands to reason that it's the task of proponents of these values to change the hearts and minds of the traditionalists.

Lese majeste amounts to ink on paper, and that's never done anyone any harm. We can't change the laws if we don't change hearts and minds.

Picture a typical Thai person with traditional values - let's call her Fai, a middle-age woman. Fai takes care of her family. She goes to work. She pays taxes. She makes merit at the temple. Her lifestyle is not unlike many other Thais or many people of other nationalities, for that matter.

She stands at attention in the movie house when the royal anthem is played, not because she has to, but because she wants to. She has a portrait of the King in her house. She wears the King's colour on special occasions and prays daily for his good health.

This is the only King she has known. To her, he represents the Thai national identity that has held the country together for some 60 years, through the Cold War and communist insurgency, while our neighbours fell apart, their families destroyed and their societies crumbled. This is the King who has always been shown among the people, caring for the sick and helping the poor.

Fai loves the King with all her heart. She's a royalist, but not a People's Alliance for Democracy member or yellow shirt. This is an emotional commitment that forms the basis of a firmly entrenched belief system - democratic principles are relatively new in Thailand and have only touched all parts of Thai society in recent years.

We all have emotional commitments to things or people we love or hold sacred. Now take that and multiply it by 100, and imagine Fai's rection to anyone she perceives is insulting or making fun of the King, whom she loves and holds sacred.

Now picture someone else, someone who puts himself on a pedestal and who is much less of a traditionalist - let's called him Ko. Though Ko does not insult or make fun of the King, he talks down to Fai. He throws the democratic left hook, the freedom uppercut and the human rights kick to the groin, calling her an ultra-royalist, fascist PAD. Then that person's foreign friend - let's called him Carlos - joins in, calling her a feudal slave in a country that will never amount to anything.

Then Ko and Carlos exchange high-fives, go online and write on their blogs about the wonderful civilised world of democracy. They tweet and write on their Facebook pages, ridiculing anyone who doesn't completely agree with them. This is because, well you know, everyone completely agrees with Ko and Carlos about freedom, human rights and democracy; otherwise they are ultra-royalist PAD-loving feudal slaves.

Meanwhile, Fai clams up, fearing not just insults and ridicule, but also constructive criticism.

Fai is not the one who wrote, passed, interpreted or executed the lese majeste law. But she and millions like her do not object to the law, and even support its strict usage. They support of it because of emotional attachments and for cultural reasons, but also because of people like Ko and Carlos.

Too often, the likes of Ko and Carlos are the proponents of democratic principles. They enjoy the adulation of their own group of like-minded people, but they are never able to reach out to others. It's a mutual adoration society.

Receiving applause from those who already agree with us is sticking with the status quo. Receiving applause from those who previously disagreed with us is progress.

We may disagree with Fai's support of the lese majeste law, but if we fail to appreciate and respect how she thinks and feels, then we have not only failed in our democratic principles, we have failed to behave intelligently.

Instead of making a stance for democratic principles, the likes of Ko and Carlos are really only taking a stand for their own vanity. We shouldn't make democracy the new religion - it deserves better treatment than that.

Allow me to humbly suggest that Fai and millions like her are intelligent individuals who can be reasoned with; that they want the best for Thailand, even if their vision of what is best differs from ours, and that if we act out of respect and decency, we might persuade Fai and others like her to appreciate open discussion and constructive criticism on any subject, including the monarchy. Not everyone, but enough to steer society on a democratic course.

Ko is perhaps very Westernised and is adamant about democratic principles, and perhaps he wants to turn Thailand into whichever Western country he idolises. Perhaps Ko's heart is also in the right place and he also wants the best for Thailand. But Ko is impatient and believes his fancy overseas degrees mean he knows better than other Thais. This too is because of an emotional attachment, as well as a delusion. And when that is challenged, Ko lashes out.

We shouldn't turn our back completely on the values that have made this country what it is. Thailand is far from ideal, but it's still a place people from across the globe flock to visit and to live in, and it affords more opportunities, freedom and human rights than most of the rest of the world.

If we turn our back on Thai values, then we turn our back on our own country and the generations of our parents and grandparents.

From a position of respect and decency Ko and Fai can learn to listen to and understand each other, and together make Thailand the best it can be. We can marry respect and decency with democratic principles without the need for draconian laws.

Nation-building is not done in a day, a year or even 10 years. It takes time and perseverance. We are all impatient and want it all now. But that's not possible.

By thumbing his nose at Fai, dismissing her thoughts and feelings and disregarding the cultural and historical context of Thailand, Ko is giving up on Thailand, his own country. In this, Ko does himself, his country and the world a disservice.

I ask Ko's forgiveness for this harsh criticism; it's tough medicine, but Ko needs to get over himself.

The darker side of lese majeste isn't the law itself - words written down might give you a paper cut, that's about it. It's the narrow-mindedness and self-righteous indignation surrounding the law that perpetuates the conflict. We have all been guilty of that, including myself.

My name is Ko and in my high school Spanish class I was Carlos. I have been guilty of most of the traits I've attributed to them at different points in my life, especially when I was a teenager. But evolution is a wonderful thing.

If anyone out there has never been guilty of vanity and small-mindedness, then good on you and you can stay on your pedestal. But if we want to change the world, we have to start by changing ourselves. Stay on the pedestal, or jump down. Your response to this column will reveal who you are, or who you want to be in this world.

Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at voranaiv@bangkokpost.co.th

Share your thoughts

Discussion 1 : 06/04/2013 at 05:48 PM
If changing is to occur in any society, either free discussion or violence must precede. If free discussion is not allowed, I'm afraid that the only other alternative will be certain!
Discussion 2 : 02/04/2013 at 11:37 PM
pjt D40 And means of redress from libel or slander in most countries is a civil matter not a criminal one. The full force of the government isn't brought down on those who libel and slander. Nobody goes to jail. Governments do have the duty to protect us from harm. It's life, liberty and pursuit of happiness that are our "unalienable rights" we allow the government to protect us. There is no right to not be offended.
Discussion 3 : 01/04/2013 at 09:20 AM
ATNN, But I have always and continue to condemn Taksin and the PheuThai failures to deliver, as do many others who also see the serious problems with the LM laws. If you had read and understood what I write you would know I am no Taksin fan, nor are many others who have solid grounds for opposing the current LM laws. These grounds are that the LM laws are contrary to democracy, contrary to reason and contrary to justice. Where did you get the totally wrong idea that I even might be pro-Thaksin? He should be in prison. Along with his former mate Chamlong and other PADsters.
Discussion 4 : 01/04/2013 at 08:08 AM
D33@ringmaster - but we do allow the state and the law to 'legislate our individual and collective responsibility to treat others with respect and decency'. Not just in this country but all around the world you will find laws and legislation in various forms to protect individuals from libel, slander and defamation and give people a means of redress when those line of decency and respect have been crossed BTW we accept rules and reglations in every aspect of our lives which protect us from the acts of our fellow citizens - think food or aircraft safety, health and safety at work, minimum wages etc etc etc
Discussion 5 : 01/04/2013 at 07:39 AM
Yeah Felixqui - Thaksin and his UDD have "a desire to bring Thai law into accord with justice..." Give it a rest will you? This current debate is yet another symptom of a political machine abusing and exploiting the process - and if you truly stood for any of the loft principles you endlessly preach, you would condemn the Thaksin anti-LM racket first and foremost, so that genuine debate could be held.
Discussion 6 : 01/04/2013 at 07:12 AM
ATNN You are perfectly right that those favouring change to the LM laws are politically motivated: those political motivations include a desire to bring Thai law into accord with justice, a desire to replace unreason with reason in the political realm, and a great desire to bring basic democratic principles to the Thai people - all political. That something is politically motivated is irrelevant to questions of democracy, of reason and of justice.
Discussion 7 : 01/04/2013 at 07:10 AM
I have noticed that some perceive the last sentence of the article as arrogant: however, isn't it worth considering that the sentence is written by the only one here who cannot remain anonymous? In fact, to be more precise, in a sense Khun V. has written a narrative where even fictional characters are revealed to be his own alter egos - with his own names. It is a piece on 'the converse of anonymity', on a topic where anonymity means safety. Maybe the last sentence should be also seen as bridging a fundamental distance between the author and his commentators (i.e., us).
Discussion 8 : 01/04/2013 at 04:15 AM
This debate is meaningless because one, perhaps both sides, are politically motivated, couching their agendas behind "freedom of speech" and national security. Look at the picture in the article - that "anti-LM" front is clearly just a poorly disguised red shirt rally. So is Nitirat. So is Prachatai - all on record tied directly to the man in Dubai and his foreign backers.
Discussion 9 : 01/04/2013 at 03:43 AM
If you are talking about changing Thai society so that it embraces democratic principles, you are talking about western democratic principles. But there is only little western style democracy or western democratic thinking and understanding in Thailand. Even if the punishment for LM may be too harsh in western view, most of Thai people do not share the NGO's and human rights watch riding on western democratic principles. They will tell you, we are here in Thailand and we do it the Thai way. I don't think this law will be changed.
Discussion 10 : 01/04/2013 at 01:55 AM
Rather a poor article - maybe because of certain intentions. The last sentence is absolutely arrogant and the author fails to draw the logical conclusion of what he fictiously tells the readers. Fai knows how to feel, how to behave and what to think and so does Ko+Carlos. Absolutely no problem for all of them and nothing needs to be regulated. Meaning, what does not have to be regulated does never need a law - so simple.
Discussion 11 : 01/04/2013 at 12:10 AM
The state is far too blunt and dangerous an instrument to be used to legislate our individual and collective responsibility to treat others with respect and decency. That is why the lese majeste law should be eliminated. We can’t let the behavior of those like Ko, Carlos, and even Fai serve as an excuse to expand the repressive powers of the state. If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The way to deal with offensive ideas is to argue against them and attempt to refute them, not to ban them.
Discussion 12 : 31/03/2013 at 10:14 PM
No need to change the law, any law, just change the attitude of those who have the authority to interprete the law.
Discussion 13 : 31/03/2013 at 07:41 PM
An excellent and thought-provoking piece. Far from 'arrogant impertinence', I found it humble and modest. I particularly like, 'Receiving applause from those who already agree with us is sticking with the status quo. Receiving applause from those who previously disagreed with us is progress.'
Discussion 14 : 31/03/2013 at 06:38 PM
'Your response to this column will reveal who you are, or who you want to be in this world.' There is an arrogant impertinence to this statement that rattles me, Mr Vanijaka. And it comes too at the end of a twopenny-wise article that very lamely attempts to justify a certain 'moderation', in the preciously Thai context (of course), in the demands for change to a law that imposes restrictions and surreally disproportionate penalties that have no moral justification....anywhere.
Discussion 15 : 31/03/2013 at 05:33 PM
'Most of the Thai people do not think about the LM law, it is irrelevant for them.' For most people in the world, most laws remain irrelevant until, for one reason or another, they get in trouble with the law. Then (whether justly accused or innocent) they must get a good lawyer to think about it, provided they can afford it.
Discussion 16 : 31/03/2013 at 04:21 PM
Most of the Thai people do not think about the LM law, it is irrelevant for them. They love and respect their King and Queen and the Royal Family and that's it. They do not want to be bothered with LM questions, because LM never comes into their mind. For them,LM has nothing to do with Democracy. As Voranai wrote : If hearts and minds are not ready for any changes, then don't change.
Discussion 17 : 31/03/2013 at 01:57 PM
Oh I'm guilty of vanity and small mindedness on a daily basis, but on this particular topic I find Khun Voranai's invitation to respond, to be a little like when the Mad Hatter asked Alice if she would like more tea. "How can I have more," she said; "When I haven't had any yet?" It will remain a rather meaningless tea party, when a fully considered view of the issues cannot be expressed here or anywhere in public.
Discussion 18 : 31/03/2013 at 01:33 PM
ATNN, re D6. It is not true "that those pushing for [LM reform] are all supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra and his UDD front". Many thoughtful people who care for justice see the deep flaws in both Thaksin and the LM laws. And since no survey has ever been done, no one, including me and you, can have any well founded opinion on what the Thai people might or might not think on this and related topics. The closest thing to any reliable survey ever done was the last election; I presume we all know the very clear results there returned.
Discussion 19 : 31/03/2013 at 01:21 PM
D22@majority - so explain something. Why has the current PT government done nothing to guide this discussion about the LM law, how it is being used (or abused) and whether it should be amended or simply used with more thoughtfully regard to the Institution we are seeking to protect? Why is the search for something wrong in the Tob Jote programmes being lead so aggressively by a PT Deputy PM? Most of all why are Fai, Ko, Carlos, PT and almost everyone involved in this discussion ignoring His Majesty's words from 2005 which could clearly be the template to resolve this issue?
Discussion 20 : 31/03/2013 at 12:39 PM
Another excellent piece from Khun Voranai. Is this constructive? An opinion on any topic can only be of worth if it can be well-informed, and can only be knowledge if errors can be corrected. Error correction is impossible if one set of opinions, however hated by some, cannot be stated and supported, leaving ignorance as the only foundation of an opinion on a censored topic. So, for those who care about a topic, any topic, is it rational to seek the possibility of knowledge that can bestow worth on opinion, or the opposite, to enforce ignorance as the basis for opinion? Can (blind) sincerity alone bestow worth or merit on any op
Discussion 21 : 31/03/2013 at 12:27 PM
The best article I have read by Mr Voranai for quite some time.
Discussion 22 : 31/03/2013 at 12:14 PM
I am sure they will never be able to explain why they have been treating the 2 laws so extremely the contradictory ways, i.e. tearing up the constitution barbarically repeatedly, while desperately protecting the outdated law without convincing justification. In my opinion, they must answer this simple question before attacking those, who have been demanding to amend certain law following the democratic and parliamentary process. Otherwise, people will never be convinced that they do NOT have a dirty and hidden agenda.
Discussion 23 : 31/03/2013 at 12:00 PM
There is only one thing missing in the article. All the characters in the narrative are Thai (even 'Carlos'). This suggests that any discussion on the subject is (and should be?) fundamentally 'Thai' business. But there are many non-Thai nationals living in Thailand, and legal structures affect them just as much as they affect the Thai. Had they appeared in Khun V.'s article, they would be complex and varied characters indeed, as the comments on this thread well demonstrate.
Discussion 24 : 31/03/2013 at 11:57 AM
In civilized and democratic society, any law can be criticized openly, and amended. In civilized and democratic society, no law could be barbarically torn up (like what happened in Thailand for decades), but every law could be amended through parliamentary and democratic process. Why are a few people in Thailand so extreme in treating the 2 laws, namely the constitution and the LM law, CONTRADICTORILY?
Discussion 25 : 31/03/2013 at 11:45 AM
An interesting point that written law is only ink on paper. I was just reading a history text where the author pointed out that the best written constitution protecting human rights was written by Joseph Stalin in 1928. There's more to law than the mere writing. In this country where emotions are so easily aroused (or bought), the law law is used as a very blunt weapon. Sorry to point this out Khun V, but people flock to Thailand for cheap goods and sex, not for family values.
Discussion 26 : 31/03/2013 at 11:39 AM
"THE important thing is to keep asking why." ALBERT EINSTEIN (emphasis added) I might also add that while my Thai 'better half' and I disagree as to whether Abhisit or Thaksin makes the best leader, we do so respectfully.
Discussion 27 : 31/03/2013 at 11:14 AM
As a 57 y/o UK expat who has also only known one UK monarch - two perspectives which might also apply to Thailand. First to understand that monarchy and democracy can and do work together as one system. Second, that people are looking for something different in their Head of State compared to their elected government. They look for something which is durable and lasts beyond the (often) fleeting terms of silver tongued politicians. They yearn for something to trust and respect and they do not find it in elected politicians who will say anything for a vote and focus only on vote gathering initiatives and special interests
Discussion 28 : 31/03/2013 at 10:55 AM
Isn't it funny though, #10, that the so-called "Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Section 112" are all wearing UDD outfits in the picture above, and the so-called "Nitirat" group's meeting also featured red shirts as well as Thaksin Shinawatra's corporate lobbyist, Robert Amsterdam, given literally a front row seat? Couching sedition behind "freedom of speech," is as bad as censoring it.
Discussion 29 : 31/03/2013 at 10:37 AM
Something that the article brought to my mind is the following: if we spend all of ourselves defending freedoms of action, expression, and so forth we may have the right to do anything, but we may not do anything right; we may be able to say anything, but we may have really nothing to say. Political systems may provide the framework to cultivate what is worthwhile and precious - but they cannot be a self-sufficient purpose, or it's like having lots of recipes but no ingredients. In that sense, any law can be used more or less well according to how wise and well-meaning those who apply them may be - and how to improve that?
Discussion 30 : 31/03/2013 at 10:27 AM
The article heading is tendentious and does not appear in the text, "Those who want to change the law on lese majeste are going about it in all the wrong ways". The final sentence is also a piece of pedestal oratory. Another heavy prison sentence handed down last week, illustrates the actual nature of the debate.
Discussion 31 : 31/03/2013 at 10:20 AM
RE: D6..ATNN. I think you are mistaken in your assumption that it is only reds who would like to end the oppressive suppression of free speech. I think people on both sides realize this law is misused as a political tool to crush all dissent there are many on all sides that would like to see the law amended and clarified to be much more tolerant to dissent,dialog and self examination because they realize that the country must be open to self examination in order make changes and have improvement. Most rightfully know that the Monarchy is so revered that it can not be overthrown with mere words.
Discussion 32 : 31/03/2013 at 10:09 AM
Daily, I'm missing in Thailand is one word: 'Why'. Nobody asks WHY do we have to do this, WHY can't I..and so on. All is just accepted and never argued and that since being toddlers and passing school. So, as long as the millions of Fai, don't ask themselves, WHY do I want to live this way, WHY do I (have to) adore institutions, WHY can influential/rich families avoid justice, WHY are people imprisoned for free speech, then nothing will change. And that's what I call self-imposed mental slavery and self-imprisonment.
Discussion 33 : 31/03/2013 at 08:43 AM
Thai people are corrupt to the core. Money rules. Ignorance is the education of the masses. How can people change when they worship money and are ignorant? The answer is they cannot. The philosophy of greed and what it will put in their hand as far as cash is the only sense people ever want to make of anything in Thailand. You need to stop pandering to BP and start reporting the real story. Without truth, their can be no change. If everything is always painted as rosy, people have no reason to change. Borrow 2 trillion? How many people actually realize the magnitude of the financial disaster this will cause Thailand? Educate your people.
Discussion 34 : 31/03/2013 at 08:33 AM
In everybodys life they will be all three of these characters. The wonderful thing about being young is that you have an opinion about everything and anything and you are always right even when you are wrong. Later in life as you grow up and mature you look back and hopefully realise that quite often you were wrong but were too arrogant to accept it and you just ignored whoever was right and treated them as old and foolish. At this age if you are lucky you will forgive the ignorance of youth having been there. Youth on the other hand has never been where you are now.
Discussion 35 : 31/03/2013 at 08:27 AM
Well written, well said.
Discussion 36 : 31/03/2013 at 07:53 AM
Any comment that does not strictly conform may be illegal so I doubt their will be many. But one very obvious question arises and it can not be ignored. "Allow me to humbly suggest that Fai and millions like her are intelligent individuals who can be reasoned with" ?? Yes, but please Allow me to humbly ask....How would Fai ever know both sides of the argument if she is not allowed to hear both sides? If every Ko is imprisoned for asking why, does that solve anything?
Discussion 37 : 31/03/2013 at 07:47 AM
Khun Voranai thanks for a great article and what you write is not only true of the LM laws but of many other issues in Thailand.
Discussion 38 : 31/03/2013 at 07:39 AM
Whether there is or isn't merit to reforming LM we'll never know - because those currently pushing for it have obvious ulterior motives. It is no coincidence that those pushing for it are all supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra and his UDD front.
Discussion 39 : 31/03/2013 at 07:23 AM
I think this article raises many good points. I appreciated the following: ‘We shouldn't make democracy the new religion’. Those who argue in favor of democracy sometimes do not offer reasons; they use the word ‘democracy’ as if it was self-evidently good. Paradoxically, to argue for democracy without offering reasons is not very ‘democratic’. We shouldn’t ignore that democracy has had its intelligent critics from various sides of the political spectrum (from Toqueville to Godwin, for example). Also, there exist lots of guidelines for government within the intellectual traditions of Asia (such as Buddhism). Isn't is all worth
Discussion 40 : 31/03/2013 at 06:52 AM
I think I know what you're trying to say, Khun Voranai, but sometimes you just can't have it both ways.
Discussion 41 : 31/03/2013 at 06:51 AM
LM in itself is not the problem. It is the people who abused the use of LM that surfaced "Ko and Fai". It is not "Ko and Fai" that created problems for LM. However, this is a good problem that surfaced and required our willingness and the political will to find a solution through law makers in parliament.
Discussion 42 : 31/03/2013 at 05:10 AM
This is truth-bending scenario to portray our situation. What's happening is Ko's trying to explain how the law has been destroying our country direct and indirectly. Not only Fai doesn't want to hear any opposing arguments but she also want to prosecute the opponents or deport anyone who dare questioning her position. This is the case we shouldn't waste our times debating. It should be basic principle that any reasoned society or person must possess without any doubt. Please don't take our country back to the year 2309.
Discussion 43 : 31/03/2013 at 04:54 AM
Thai collectiveness is one trait that stands out in my mind, that foreigners admire about Thailand. Many foreign cultures are shaped around individualism. From a very young age people are taught to be themselves. People are taught that success or failure will be attributed to their performance only. Competition is of the utmost importance. The Thai mind set is the absolute opposite of this. In most cases the family unit works as a collective group for the survival of the family, not the survival of a single person. With westernization setting in, unfortunately this will change more and more. I believe some things should never change!

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