Even a casual visitor to Thailand can't fail to notice the public veneration of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch who last year celebrated 60 years on the throne. His image is plastered on giant billboards, roadside shrines, and airport skybridges. Every Monday, millions of Thais wear yellow shirts in his honor and refer to him proudly as "my King."
But behind these respectful displays are lèse-majesté laws that make it a criminal offense to dishonor Thailand's royal family. As a Swiss man discovered last week, public criticism of the crown, or even the whiff of disrespectful behavior, is taboo. Anyone can lodge a complaint with police, and foreigners aren't exempt.
But beyond stifling dissent against the king, in whose name the military launched a coup last September, Thailand's 11th during his reign, fear of the laws has drawn a veil over comment on Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the next in line to the throne. Prince Vajiralongkorn is likely to find it hard to match King Bhumibol's record as a diligent, devout monarch with a deft political touch. Palace publicists have struggled to create a positive image of the prince, in contrast to his younger sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who is active in charity.
In several recent cases, Thai officials have made clear the long arm of the country's lèse-majesté laws. On March 29, Oliver Jufer was sentenced to 10 years in prison for defacing portraits of the king and queen. Mr. Jufer pleaded guilty to spray-painting graffiti over the images while intoxicated near his home in Chiang Mai. His was the first such conviction of a foreigner in a decade or more.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is being investigated on several counts of lèse-majesté. His alleged disrespect to the crown was among the justifications given for the coup. A case is also pending against Sulak Sivaraksa, an outspoken Thai academic who has twice before been prosecuted for the crime, and has called for its repeal.
This clampdown follows the heated atmosphere of mass rallies last year against Mr. Thaksin, when opposition politicians called on Bhumibol to replace the embattled premier, as he did in 1992. Bhumibol declined, and a protracted standoff over Thaksin's rule ended in a bloodless coup. But the rallies sparked an unusually frank public debate in the mainstream media over the constitutional powers of the monarchy in a fragile democracy.
Since the coup, that debate has been pushed to the margins, where bolder voices have tried to keep the spotlight on royal powers. But the door appears to be closing as a conservative military tightens its grip, abetted by media self-censorship. That, say critics, leaves little room to explore what lies ahead as Thailand tries to reconstitute its political system.
"If we're going to have political reform, then we have to abolish the lèse-majesté laws. We have to be able to talk about the important issues in Thai society and the role of the monarchy," says Giles Ungpakorn, a professor of politics at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, who has organized protests against the coup.
The law has been on the books for a century, but was used sparingly until 1976, when a right-wing junta seized power and raised the maximum penalty to 15 years in jail. Since then, the number of cases has surged, despite constitutional safeguards on free speech, says David Streckfuss, a US expert on Thailand.
"It's crept into the entire Thai political discourse, creating a black hole in the center. As soon as you touch on certain topics, suddenly everything stops," he says.
Even more delicate than discussing Bhumibol's reign, the ninth in the Chakri dynasty that began in 1782, is the question of his successor. The ailing monarch, who underwent spinal surgery last year, is increasingly ceding ceremonial duties to Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. But the prince's choice of royal consorts has fueled unkind gossip behind closed doors, as well as talk of an ancient prediction that the dynasty would end at the ninth reign.
In the information age, it is hard to keep a lid on such speculation, says Mr. Sulak. "When you want to suppress the truth, the suppression must go the whole hog. But with the Internet now, it's not possible," he says.
Sulak, a British-educated lawyer and Buddhist scholar, is facing two separate lèse-majesté cases over articles published in academic journals. He denies showing disrespect, though he says he advocates a modernization of the crown similar to that of European royalty, and the repeal of lèse-majesté laws, so that the institution remains relevant to Thailand.
US-born Bhumibol himself discussed lèse-majesté in a speech in 2005, saying that constructive criticism could be useful for a monarch. Observers say that the laws are frequently invoked by politicians to attack opponents, such as the cases filed against Thaksin, who is currently living in exile. His rival Sondhi Limthongkul, a publisher, is also facing several lèse-majesté investigations over his public speeches.
But there's little appetite here to challenge the orthodoxy behind the laws, says Thanapol Eawsakul, editor of "Fah Diew Gan" (Same Skies), a leftist quarterly. He was questioned last year by police after lèse-majesté charges were filed over an issue, later suppressed, exploring the powers of the king.
"They can't loosen up now just because Bhumibol has a great reputation. What is monarchy but an institution based on a family dynasty?" says Paul Handley, US author of "The King Never Smiles," a critical biography of Bhumibol that's banned in Thailand.