Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
The military government in Thailand has a well-established gift for Orwellian absurdity. Not long after seizing power in a 2014 coup, junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha published a song titled “Return Happiness to Thailand.” Last year officials spotted a seditious conspiracy behind a plan to distribute red bowls as gifts (presumably because the color red is associated with the opposition). Thais have been arrested for allegedly making disrespectful remarks about the king’s dog, and for eating a suspicious sandwich.
But now the government has managed to outdo itself. On April 12, the eve of the Thai new year, the Thai Ministry of Digital Economy and Society announced that it was forbidding my compatriots from contacting me via Facebook. They have been warned that sharing my content on the Internet, either directly or indirectly, could violate a law aimed at controlling critical information against the monarchy.
The statement told Thais to refrain from engaging “in any activity that results in spreading content from the individuals mentioned in this announcement on social media.” The persons named included me, historian-in-exile Somsak Jeamteerasakul and former Reuters journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall.
The military junta has repeatedly accused me of being critical of the monarchy, which in Thailand is considered a serious crime. Lèse-majesté, or the crime of injury to royalty, is defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which states that defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the king, queen or regent are punishable by three to 15 years in prison.
In the three years since they overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the controversial former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, generals have put immense effort into silencing critics of the monarchy. In the aftermath of the coup, I was summoned to have my attitude “adjusted.” When I rejected the summons, the military issued a warrant for my arrest and revoked my passport, forcing me to apply for refugee status in Japan.
The 2014 coup was significant precisely because the political elites were anxious about the upcoming royal succession. The then-king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who had been on the throne since 1946, was clearly nearing his end. Bhumibol was a figure of great authority who transformed a declining monarchy into the most powerful institution in Thai political life. His subjects regarded him with reverence and as a desperately needed source of stability.
The realization that he was about to be succeeded on the throne by his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, merely added to the anxiety. Vajiralongkorn has never achieved the same love and respect from the people. Vajiralongkorn is the opposite of his father. While Bhumibol won the hearts and minds of Thais, Vajiralongkorn rules his subjects by fear.
Bhumibol died in October of last year, and his son was officially crowned two months later. Even before his accession to the throne, Vajiralongkorn had begun to instill fear to consolidate his power. He eliminated his enemies in the palace (mainly those who had worked for his father). In some cases, he sent his foes to be “reeducated” in military camps. They were humiliated in public, such as having their heads shaved. Some were sent to jail on dubious charges; at least three have died mysteriously while in detention. Vajiralongkorn’s former consort, Princess Srirasmi, whom he divorced in December 2014, is now under house arrest. Her relatives were accused of exploiting the name of Vajiralongkorn for personal benefit and are now imprisoned.
I angered the military by writing about these issues — hence the current effort to silence me.
Traditionally, the monarchy has depended on the military for support. As crown prince, Vajiralongkorn recognized that he would one day need the army to reinforce his own power. He has never criticized the coup or the military’s harsh crackdown on Thais. This month he even endorsed the military-drafted constitution, parts of which were amended to boost the prerogatives of the king. This explains why the junta feels it can move without restraint against its critics, even to the point of arresting those who mock military leaders on social media.
As an academic, I treat the monarchy as a subject of study and am therefore obliged to give an honest assessment of how the institution has had an impact on politics and inevitably on the people’s everyday life. Yet this has made me a target of the Thai state. Not content with declaring me an unperson in my own country, the government is now trying to do the same in cyberspace.
Undoubtedly, the latest move by the Thai state shows its desperate need to suppress undesirable information about the life of the Thai king. The Ministry of Digital Economy and Society’s announcement was apparently prompted by the release of a video clip that showed Vajiralongkorn, his undersized crop top revealing yakuza-style tattoo stickers on his torso, roaming a Munich shopping mall with a female companion. Eventually, Marshall got hold of the clip and broadcast it on his Facebook page to retaliate against the ban.
The monarchy was once a pillar of Thai society. With a scandalous king now on the throne, the Thai state has chosen to curb freedom of expression. But it is losing the battle in cyberspace. Thais are seeking to break free from the constraints placed on coverage of the royal family. The more the monarchy deals with its critics through illegal and illegitimate means, the more it is likely to hurt itself.