March 4, 2013

Understanding Lese Majeste - intent and crime

Understanding Lese Majeste in Thailand - intent and crime

One of the most outstanding features of the masterful  Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse-majesté (London: Routledge, 2011) by David Streckfuss is its unprecedented attempt to lay bare the logic of thinking by those who protect Thainess through the monarchy (or the monarchy through Thainess). Streckfuss's  idea of a "defamation regime" is not a casual shot at coining a nice easy term, but is a systematic  rendering, informed by deep theory, of the logic of the Thai state.

I had the pleasure of interviewing David Steckfuss about his book and the edited transcript was published in Critical Asian Studies in 2011. As we ponder why people like  labour and red-shirt activist Somyot Prueksakasemsuk  and others are locked behind bars for what amount to thought and speaking crimes, the temptation is to blame the sheer callousness of the authorities.  That doesn't add up. As commentator after commentator notes, the thoughtless and ruthless application of the lese-majeste law  and the inhumane sentencing that occurs  might sensibly be thought to diminish the position of the monarchy in Thailand - any cost/benefit analysis would suggest as much.

Something else is going on so that the lese majeste  machine sentences and imprisons at will.  And it has come  recently in Somyot's case to  more explicitly expand its rationale for imprisonment  to the supposed  "intention" of the accused.  Sentencing  doesn't go through a cost/benefit committee charged with protecting the image and reputation of the monarchy.   There are other reasons behind what is happening other  than sheer instrumental repression. Truth and Trial in Thailand is a conceptually rich that book gives us deep insights  into this ghostly machine. Critical Asian Studies has made the full transcript and accompanying book review available here .  

At a minimum government agencies such as Thailand's   Office of the Attorney General, government and opposition spoke-persons  and public intellectuals ought express a preference for bail,  lighter sentencing and stricter thresholds for prosecution. The idea that  the issue is too sensitive to address openly  is a convenient infantilization of Thailand's public sphere and a misguided attempt to reconcile with something that isn't tangible.