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."

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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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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