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

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