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Geopolitics

Long Shielded, Thailand's Monarchy Facing Hard Questions Amid Unrest

Reports of the Thai army taking control in a military coup come as a growing number of activists are openly challenging the country's long-reigning King Bhumibol.

Supporters of the Thai monarchy celebrated the 64th anniversary of the coronation of King Bhumibol on May 5.
Supporters of the Thai monarchy celebrated the 64th anniversary of the coronation of King Bhumibol on May 5.
Anatole Perrot

BANGKOK — Chatwadee "Rose" Amornpat is a charming Thai hairdresser who lives in London. Virtually every day she posts a new video of a short speech on her Facebook page — and every day, tens of thousands people click on to see what she has to say.

For the Thai people fighting for freedom of expression in their country, Rose has become "the angel of democracy" after her own parents, who live in Bangkok, filed a complaint last month against her, bringing seven videos of their daughter as proof. In these videos, Rose mocks Thailand's King Bhumibol, the queen and other members of the royal family. She could face more than 100 years in prison for lèse-majesté, insulting the monarch, as prescribed by Article 112 under the country's criminal code.

And right now, the stakes are higher than ever. After six months of unrest and trials, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was forced from office on May 7, and this week the army declared martial law. Reports Thursday of a military coup came as the military imposed a curfew.

The caretaker Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, designated by the monarch, had said in a statement that "the army’s action must be under the constitution with the king as the head of state."

But more and more, the monarchy's role itself is being questioned. Rose describes herself as a "red shirt" republican, from the movement of protests which started in 2006. She was nonetheless raised surrounded by "yellow shirts," who remain loyal to the monarchy. With her acidic voice, she crucifies the monarchy and its pomp, false virtues and endless excess. She talks about the obscure role played by the king during the various coups d"état that have punctuated the country's history since the end of World War II, and that cost thousands of lives.

She also criticizes those Thai who make "donations" to an enormously wealthy royal family. With a $40 billion empire (assessed by Forbes), King Bhumibol, who is 86 years old and has reigned since 1946, would currently be the wealthiest monarch in the whole word.

An extradition request was filed in Bangkok to force Rose back to Thailand. "Even committed abroad, a crime of lèse-majesté is still punishable," a police official explains.

She has become a British citizen, so she doesn't risk anything, unless she decides to return to Thailand. But royalists send her death threats via her Facebook page.

Personality cult

This is the hidden aspect of "the land of smiles," known for its sweet life and warm beaches: every year, hundreds of people are convicted because they "stained" the sovereign's splendor. When you arrive in Bangkok, you cannot miss the extraordinary fervor that surrounds King Bhumibol, also called Rama IX.

The picture of the 9th sovereign of the Chakri dynasty is posted everywhere in the capital city. Doesn't this exuberant personality cult remind you of the Kim dynasty in North Korea? "Kim" is actually one of the nicknames that was given to the king by his opponents, who are forced to talk in code word.

In these images, the king is represented alone or with the beautiful queen Sirikit, typically bearing a serious expression, but perhaps captured with his camera or playing saxophone. For the Thai, Bhumibol is not only an exceptional head of state, he is also a protective figure against evil. Even television news dedicate a part of their bulletin to the charitable activities of the royal family that day.

Opposing views

If Thailand was spared from communism, it is thanks to the king. If the country overcame the 1997 financial crisis, it is also thanks to the king. Without him, Thailand would sink into a moral, political and economic chaos. With such thinking, it comes as no surprise then that his subjects consider any criticism as a sacrilege.

But in this ocean of adulation, opposing views are making their way. "It's not visible but we live in a society that is paralyzed by fear," says a student from the prestigious Thammasat University.

"We can't say out loud things like the fact that at every coup d"état, the king signs the decree that allows the generals to take power," the student adds. "In other words, he has "blessed" military dictatorships for 50 years."

One of his friends who studies political science agrees. "In an essay about political transition, I wrote about the question of inheritance in Thailand," he says, "the head of the university called me into his office to tell me he was scared for me, that my parents could lose their son."

Another student who identifies himself as a member of the Thai aristocracy adds that he is fed up with all the praise and endless ceremonies for this "useless old man."

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Monument to King Bhumidol — Photo: Chris Brown

"We have to stand up when the national anthem is played before every movie screening, every football game," he says, "I have nothing against the monarchy but they should stop bothering us. Why not like in England? It could be an attraction for tourists."

Trials and self-censorship

Thanks to the work of dissident historians, these Ph.D students are aware of the periods of repression during the king's reign. In 1976, dozens of students were killed in a massacre in Thammasat, their own university.

Aum Neko, one of these students, is waiting for her trial under Article 112. When she had been interviewed on television about her opposition to compulsory uniforms in universities, she had talked about a "reform of the monarchical system."

It is a new generation, with older people clearly less apt to talk about the monarchy. A decade ago, there were three to four trials every year. In 2010, that number reached 478 and is still increasing. When the person pleads guilty, he or she has a chance to be pardoned. Otherwise, the sentence can often be severe.

A magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2013, after he published two critical articles. In 2012, a retired man called "Uncle SMS" died in jail after eight requests to be released on bail: He had been sentenced to 20 years for four text messages he didn't even write, as he didn't know how to use a mobile phone.

Even foreign journalists based in Bangkok fall under a kind of self-censorship. "Foreign people were arrested (under Article 112)," recalls one veteran correspondent. "Many journalists who were subjects of a complaint had to leave the country."

Adds another correspondent who has also worked in Beijing: "As soon as you talk about the monarchy, you are more in danger here than you would be in China. So the international media coverage of Thailand is bound to be biased too."

Two irreconcilable fractions

What is the monarchy hiding behind to want to censor coverage with Article 112? After a 68-year-old reign, one would think Rama IX should feel reassured in his role as the father of the nation.

But he is not. According to inside sources, the king spends his sleepless nights reading blogs and forums from people who were forced into exile by the censorship. Then he must know that a significant fringe of young people consider the monarchy as superfluous and even harmful. "The biggest taboo of this regime is its nature itself," a young attorney says. "Thailand is the example of a sham democracy. We pretend to have a constitutional monarch but he is an absolute monarch, who spent his life trampling the Constitution."

Of course if he surfs the net today, Bhumibol can also measure the gap that currently divides the country in two irreconcilable fractions: the "yellow shirts" against the "red shirts". The king cannot ignore the opinions of those who think the survival of the monarchy and even the country's existence itself are at stake in this battle.

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