January 21, 2009

Lèse majesté and Solidarity: the Case of Ji Giles Ungpakorn

On Freedom of Expression

Very few people are able or willing to fight lèse majesté charges in Thailand. Understandably. The prospect of a long term in gaol (any time is a long time in a Thai gaol), the chance of blowing a royal pardon if one pleads not-guilty, the breaking of social norms, such fates must weigh heavily on the minds of those charged with a crime that should have no place in modern law. This law is so morally politicised that its employment is equivalent to the imposition of a religious creed.

For some years the fear that has surrounded lèse majesté has been ebbing, and writings in the Thai language have ventured beyond royal hagiography. The future of Thai democracy will be more robust, in part, because of such work.

Most western academics working on Thailand who care about truth have probably, somewhere along the line, written something that could be construed as lese majeste if their writings were to fall into the wrong hands.

Western academics have been reasonably protected by the language barrier. Generally their work is not translated into Thai and it rarely reaches a Thai audience. Perhaps it is also because their work is not published in Thailand.

Thai Marxist Ji Giles Ungpakorn, an Associate Professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, for some time has been willing to test what can be said about the monarchy in both English and the Thai language.

Quite rightly, he is motivated by a desire to understand and explain the nature of Thai politics. You can not do that without talking about the monarchy.

In his fearless book "A Coup for the Rich" he makes some comments about the monarchy and the use of that institution by the military. His right to make those comments should be supported by anyone who cares about freedom of speech, regardless of whether they agree or not with his argument.

Yesterday, the 20th January 2009, he was charged with lèse majesté because of "offending" passages in that book. For this "crime", if proven guilty, he may be imprisoned for up to 15 years.

Liberals, in the classic sense, typically believe in free speech. They assume that the best argument emerges from the free deliberation of citizens. But most political liberals in Thailand have long believed that the monarchy is a safety valve, a para-political institution that can help smooth the processes of economic, social and political transition. They generally fear an unmediated democracy where all are equal. Their willingness to trade the freedom-principle for stability in the name of elite liberalism (and their willingness to pact with statist conservatives) means that they are unlikely to support free speech.

Indeed, some will be pressing for "due process" in this case; that means the application of a "law", the merits of which even the incumbent king, Bhumiphol, questioned in 2005.

If this case goes ahead and Ji Giles Ungpakorn contests it, much more than the very important freedom of one person will be at stake. It is important that anyone who supports freedom of speech opposes the politicised use of lese majeste. I can think of no use of lese majeste that is not politicised.

For more information on Ji's case go to

On Jakraphop's lese majeste case see here

January 5, 2009

Four Elections and a Coup

Crediting Historical Figures.

The Australian Journal of International Affairs has provided free access to my article,"Four Elections and a Coup".

Written before the Constitution Court's dissolution of the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party (PPP) it covers three main areas: the pro-Thaksin side, the People's Allliance for Democracy (PAD), and the issue of the monarchy.

In general I see the events of last year as confirmation of the contingent pacting between liberals and statists against Thaksin (discussed in the post below). I see the struggle as primarily one over regime form, and do not consider that the statist, conservative and liberal elites primarily pacted against Thaksin because of pro-poor policies.

It is generally agreed that the military exerted pressure to break up the PPP led- coalition. However, I do not see a co-ordinated conspiracy against Thaksin that links the PAD, the ECT, the military, the courts, the palace or "network monarchy" and the Democrat Party. Each element has worked against Thaksin and the pro-Thaksin forces, but with different means and towards different objectives, and in ways that may well be antagonistic to other anti-Thaksin forces.

I previously flagged the idea of a Bonapartist solution - one that disarms the "extremes" of both camps and rules above contending forces. It will be interesting to see whether legal cases against the PAD leadership (representing the anti-Thaksin extremity) will proceed. Of course, a Democrat Party led government, no matter how it came to power, is not quite a Bonapartist solution despite Aphisit's suggestions that PAD will be dealt with according to law. The current situation signals the accomplishment of PAD's key objective of removing the pro-Thaksin government (however tentatively).

Moreover, should that objective actually be realised in the medium term (there being no parliamentary re-alignment) PAD in its militant form would most likely disappear. And should the Democrat led government survive, one can expect that PAD's "new politics" will become the detritus of an unlikely circumstance that momentarily saw individual military figures, ultra-nationalists/royalists and democracy activists work together. Perhaps think of "new politics" as a kind of mutating political offspring generated by the pragmatism and opportunism of those who were willing to use any means to beat Thaksin.

Their struggle, among many others, has not returned Thailand to the politics of semi-democracy of the 1980s, nor has it returned it to the politics of the 1990s, when liberal politics and polyarchic democracy were ascendant, nor the mid-2000s of Thaksin's emergent authoritarianism. Having so often suggested that some resolution was close at hand in this epic struggle, I'll desist such a position now.

It appears that the mythic conflation of Thaksinism and democracy (speaking of another mutating political offspring) is going to be around for a while yet - such a powerful myth is socially grounded in the electoral dispossession experienced after the coup, in the social and economic policies of the Thaksin government, and in the activities of party cadre/democracy activists and their interaction with people. Most pointedly, it is grounded in the electoral feats of the pro-Thaksin forces, resulting from a combination of old-style politics, and the Thaksin government's connection with popular aspiration.

Thaksinism, and the threat it posed to the old elite's relationship with the country's population, may well have given speed to the elaboration of its antithesis, a socially embedded liberalism (in sections of the Democrat party and elsewhere).

It would seem that when you are a historical figure, you get a lot of credit.