Thailand’s crisis and free speech: What should happen now?

If Thailand made it legal to talk freely about the monarchy, the government would open itself up to needed democracy, growth, and the respect of its citizens.

It has been a week since the Thai military cracked downed on antigovernment protests in the capital. Bangkok has not seen such violence in its city streets in nearly 20 years. The city is still under curfew, travelers are being told to avoid it, and the country is at a political impasse.

The government, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, essentially represents a rich Thai Chinese family, aristocrats, military brass, and palace elites. The “red shirts,” on the other side, represent the rural and urban poor, along with a growing number of lower middle class workers and intellectuals seeking a larger piece of the pie.

The current trouble can be traced to competing godfathers who have used their influence and wealth to amass forces designed to pressure the other side into submission.

Why the protests in Bangkok put a spotlight on the monarchy

What hasn’t been discussed much is why and how the existing Thai political system could be restructured and reformed as a result of social and economic change.

Yet the key to ending this bitter struggle is reform.

And no party or person has yet offered a successful (and inclusive) reform agenda to make the political process more representative, transparent, and accountable.

Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 after the Siamese revolution. High hopes for democracy evolved, however, as the country became a blended absolute and constitutional institution.

The major obstacle to political reform in Thailand is its law of lèse-majesté.

All 17 versions of the Thai Constitution since 1932 contain the clause, “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.” The Thai criminal code elaborates: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years.”

In fact, the law has been applied broadly to intimidate and – where expedient, to imprison – critics of the current political system. That presents a significant problem: It becomes impossible to talk about political reform. There can be no open, frank, and direct exchange of views on how to politically deal with the monarchy as an institution. And without that ability to speak freely, reform becomes near impossible.

Lèse-majesté laws throw a cloak of quasi-religious adulation around the institution. This contradiction between democratic and god-king visions of governing must be resolved.

Reform in Thailand can find no traction within the existing political system that rests, in part, on a sacred institution that cannot be discussed or questioned.

Certainly, Thailand has gone far with a hybrid-feudalistic system that has harnessed the forces of global capitalism.

But some groups have been excluded. And now, having grown up in a system that marginalized their political voice, these groups are showing an unprecedented unwillingness to speak out. They are rightly demanding a share of the political space.

To be sure, dropping lèse-majesté laws means opening Thailand’s government up to discussion on succession and the political process. For a government that is used to almost total control, that could be hard to swallow at first. But by getting rid of this arcane law, the government would be opening itself up to democracy, growth, and the respect of its citizens.

Instead, demonstrators are being treated increasingly like heretics. The rhetoric of pro-government forces is growing fiercer and uncompromising, and some within the ranks of the government are baying for blood. Red shirts have been demonized as terrorists and traitors in the eyes of the government and its backers.

Sadly, given the Thai people’s long history with strongmen military leaders, many have high tolerance for and, even expect, strong measures from government and military in the name of security even if it requires bloodletting to accomplish that goal.

Until lèse-majesté laws are repealed and the political space is opened to discussion, extremists on both sides will dig in for a long, bitter struggle.

The author, whose name has been withheld for safety concerns, is a retired businessman.

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