Wednesday, December 28, 2011

David Streckfuss : « There is a broad consensus in Thailand that the LM law is prone to abuse”

Question : We could have expected the current government to be more lenient on the issue of lèse-majesté. It does not seem to be the case.

David Streckfuss : I am not sure that we can say at this point that the current government has been harsher in the use of the lèse-majesté law, because there are statistics for this year that show that there has been a decrease in the number of cases compared to last year, but it does not break it down month by month. It is probably going to end up with a third of the cases that there was in 2010, for the charges coming before the lower court. So I think it is too early to say what the Peua Thai has been doing with this law until we see more details.
But on the face of it, it seems that the Peua Thai has chosen to distance itself from Red Shirts elements who have been either critical of the institution or critical of the 112 law itself. So that they don’t become themselves accused of being uninterested in the institution, they have to appear even more loyal than the opposition.

Can we say that the lèse-majesté law is not only to protect the royal family, but also a tool to protect a system of power ?

It is reasonable to say at this point that the law itself has come to define the institution, which means that if it were merely a law to protect certain personages we would have one thing. But now, there is a general understanding that the law is there to protect the institution of the monarchy and to protect whatever power system has built up around it. So it is doing a lot more than what a normal defamation law would be doing.

Tul Sittisomwong, a member of Siam Samakki, uses the conspiracy argument against people calling for reform or article 112. Is it a way to undermine any reasonable arguments for reform ?

The idea that there is some sort of conspiracy out there helps to delegitimize and to clothe in negative terms any calls for reform of the law. I would imagine that ultimately yellow shirts groups or multicolor shirts groups or the Siam Samakki group are fearful of what would happen if the law were touched. I think that they feel that the only way the institution can be maintained is by having a very severe law to make sure that it is respected in a certain way.
But I think that there is more and more public awareness of the issue and that this awareness is leading to criticism of at least the law and its continuing threats to basic democratic values and freedoms like freedom of expression. So there has been at some point a delinking between the idea that someone is being worried by the effects of a very harsh law on the state of democracy in Thailand and any sort of position they might have on the institution itself. And before that delinking can happen there will be a lot of accusations of conspiracy theory.
But at the end of the day, that Thailand monarchy becomes more transparent and more accountable to the public is a normal aspect of any constitutional monarchy anywhere else. It is not even clear to me, looking at the law, that it would be necessarily illegal to say that you are a republican and be Thai, to say that : “Nothing personal, but I don’t care for this kind of institution”. That is the common experience of what happens with constitutional monarchies in Europe. There is always between 10 and 20 %, depending on what is going on, who are opposed to the monarchy and want to abolish it. And that is normal. So the day that Sweden for instance has a poll and 74 % of the people decide that they want to keep the institution and the institution will remain in Sweden or somewhere else in Europe, if it would change it would be the end of the institution, but it would be done democratically and that is the main thing.
But in Thailand of course, republican sentiment is thought to be against the law and has been for a long long time.

There is this argument that Thailand is unique, an exception, and it justifies that there should be no change to the institution ?

Yes, the Thai monarchy is very unique in the sense that it gets incredibly harsh laws for modern times and for Thailand aspirations to be a democratic country. So yes, it is very unique in that sense. But in the sense that Thailand has some sorts of unique system of ideas, a unique kind of culture that causes Thai people to be like this or that is a way of isolating Thailand in a sense that many people would not want to do. That kind of thought leads to where Burma was before, or North Korea or nations like that. Thailand has the aspiration of being part of the community of modern nation-states, just like the US who does not listen very much and sees itself sometimes through exceptionalism as well but as some level accepts that there are some rules that should be observed if you want to be called democratic… And I think they are enough people that want Thailand to be democratic and also a monarchy, that are willing to see Thailand open to criticisms for its human rights records in this respect. They don’t want Thailand to be an exception in that sense.

General Prayuth Chan-Ocha said a few days ago that the people who want to reform article 112 should go to live abroad, meaning if you don’t love the King you are not Thai. What do you see behind this linkage between loving the monarchy and being a Thai ?

This is one of the most common aspect of the lèse-majesté charge. It has been around for a long time and it is often part of the lèse-majesté accusation. It seems very ill-advised to set up this kind of dichotomy. There are a lot of things in the news these days that are moving us and becoming very helpful for Thailand to be able to respect and tolerate differences and create a dialogue around it. That statement by General Prayuth was not one of those things.

Thailand is going through a transition from a traditional status-based society to a more participatory society. One of the elements of this transition is the controversy around lèse-majesté. Why is there so much focus on this element and not on other issues, like the financial transparency of the royal family or the obligation to prostate oneself in front of the royals ?

The way that Thainess has been constructed for now a century has, in the last fifty years, involved some aspects of how the institution would play in people’s lives. And I think that there is probably a fear on the side of those who are opposed to any changes of the lèse-majesté law, a fear of what is left then. Because once that factor is taken out, can Thailand unite around, whether rhetorically or not, for instance respect for the constitution or rule of law or democratic values ? It is a quite different thing. I am guessing that those opposed to the reform of the law don’t have any way of conceiving Thainess in a way that would seem to hold the whole thing together. They expect chaos to happen.
I think it will take a big step for everybody to approach the issue. And it has been lucky, because in the last couples of weeks, it is clear that there is a fairly broad consensus in Thai society that the law is prone to abuses. To address it as a rights issue helps a lot to try to fix that, then who knows what happen after that ? Sure it is a big question mark. If the lèse-majesté law were changed, I think there would be a shift in Thai society that no one can exactly predict, especially when the question of succession is so much on people’s minds. So, it is a volatile issue that, I think, scares a lot of people.

Interview done by Arnaud Dubus

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