Thai Freedom: We Can’t Breathe

by PEN American Center    /  July 3, 2014  / No comments

Protest in Thailand. Credit: PEN.


For months we’ve been reaching out to Thai journalists and writers asking them to comment on the state of free expression in Thailand. The response is always the same: thanks, but no thanks. What’s preventing them from speaking out is the anitquated lèse-majesté law that forbids criticism of the royal family. We finally found a young Thai writer who resides in the U.S. willing to explore the law and it’s implications on Thai culture and public discussion of the current political situation. On a recent trip back to Thailand, she spoke to several Thai writers about the law and recent political unrest.

“Reverence does not come from a TV antenna.” I was told this by a well-known Thai writer on a trip to Thailand in April. He was marveling at the daily news, which is required to report on the activities of the Thai royal family. He was speaking in code, of course, as many Thais do when discussing Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, Thailand’s lèse-majesté law that states: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” His point was that propaganda can’t force devotion.

Born and raised in Bangkok, I currently live in the US and maintain both Thai and American citizenship. I often return home, and on my most recent trip to visit family, I hoped to meet with several Thai writers to talk about the impact Article 112 has had on free expression.

But given the increasing use of the law to put people in jail, I was surprised and a little nervous when a group of six writers—established, well-known personalities—agreed to meet with me. For those living in Thailand, the decision to speak with me came with very real legal risks.

We met me at a café in Bangkok’s sister city, Thonburi. To get there, I took the Skytrain and a motorbike to an area that seemed to exist in another decade. Life moved at a slower pace than downtown. The café was a hip, black-painted warehouse with a banyan tree soaring over the building. Oddly, there were no portraits of the royal family on any of the walls, a design detail that couldn’t have existed a few years ago.

We spoke for many hours and drank many cups of coffee. They were open and candid with me, a fact that made me wonder how realistic it would be to edit and publish the conversation for public consumption.

That was at the end of April. Two months later, Thailand is a completely different country. On May 23rd the military staged a coup. Thailand is now under military rule, with the new elections more than a year off.

Using the Internet and social media, Thais have mobilized and protested the latest installment in a power struggle that some say is about the royal succession, though discussing this notion is strictly banned. On June 1st, 5,700 troops fanned out over Bangkok to enforce a new law preventing gatherings of more than five people. Thais are now using flash mobs as a means of protest, holding up a Hunger Games three fingers salute before disappearing back into the crowd of a train station, a sidewalk, a park. It’s harder to identify protesters if they aren’t carrying signs or wearing t-shirts, anything marking them as disobedient to this new regime.

I’ve written and re-written this piece, and considered holding off on publication many times, most recently when General Prayuth, the top military leader, summoned 250 leading scholars and writers to meet with him. Those who didn’t respond to his summons face two years in jail. Though we don’t know what was said during this meeting, we do know that he has publicly accused journalists of “asking questions too aggressively.”

But I’ve decided to publish because of what one writer recently wrote to me in an email:

You can help us fight against dictatorship here by sharing knowledge and spreading news about this regime. I know that from outside very little can be done, but there are hundreds of non-violent prisoners of conscience now in detention and many more to come. We are so worried about them.

It’s hard to breath here in this nauseating atmosphere with no freedom of expression. As a writer it’s choking.

Like [Slavoj] Zizek said ‘First as tragedy, then as farce’. Now I can only think of using humor like double consciousness or a subversive sense of humor to provoke and protest this totalitarian state. I’m sure there will be many nonviolent civilian resistance movements in the near future.

But before we do anything, first we have to break the silence.

To protect the safety of my family still living in Bangkok, and the identity of the writers I spoke to, we have decided to use pseudonyms for our names.

Marisa Akara: What is the state of freedom of expression in Thailand today?

Michael K.: It looks on the surface like you can say anything you want as long as you don’t insult the monarchy. But the truth is that some people can say what they want—people with connections, or writers, academics, intellectuals, who know how to couch what they say so that they won’t get in trouble with the censors.

W.R.: In 2008 Queen Sirikit attended the funeral of one of the PAD [People’s Alliance for Democracy, a former incarnation of the Yellow Shirts] protestors, and it seemed like the Royals took sides. They were not above politics after all. In 2010 after the crackdown on red shirt protestors, graffiti appeared in Bangkok and in villages across the country, at gas stations for example. The owner of the gas station could be sued if he didn’t remove the graffiti fast enough. Newspapers couldn’t report on the existence of the graffiti at all. People who are more educated know how to express their opinion. This doesn’t seem fair.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Most Thai people don’t mind the censorship we have in place. They ask why would someone want to criticize the Buddha? It’s the people who criticize who are the problem.

But it’s not like we want to even say negative things. How about the freedom to ask questions, like whether the monarchy had anything to do with past coups, like where they spend their money?

Marisa Akara: Why does freedom of expression matter?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Freedom is like air—it’s easy to take for granted, but one day you will find you can’t breathe. Writers are the ones meant to test the quality of the air. We’re the index. The frontier. The building block.

If we lower the ceiling on this subject and say nothing, maybe we’ll be fine in the short term because we find ways to write in code. But in the long term we will be engaged in self-censorship.

Jean-Baptiste Clamence: It’s not like we want to be rabble-rousing you know… talking about this all the time. I think all of us would rather be at home writing. We want to be left alone to make our art. I know I want to be alone and safe. But if the society is in chaos, if I don’t join this group and add my voice to democracy… maybe someday I won’t be able to stay alone, writing. One day someone will come for me.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: What’s funny about Thailand is that it’s a dictatorship from the inside. From the outside things look okay. We’ve had 75 years of “democracy”. But the politics aren’t stable. Really it is a succession of coups.

Jean-Baptiste Clamence: You know that if you are Thai in public school you learn certain words in rachasap [royal language]. Almost all of the people around this table are not from Bangkok. What are the chances that we will encounter, much less speak to, a member of the royal family? Small. So why do we need to learn a special language reserved for special people? To show they have power.

Marisa Akara: What are the repercussions of speaking about Article 112?

W. R.: Jail, almost certainly. No judge dares acquit the accused, and one judge said that the more accurate the accusation, the heavier the sentence.

Michael K.: The monarch’s portrait hangs in every courtroom—how can the judge not rule in his favor?

W.R.: And usually the judges don’t set bail. It’s not about the rule of law, it’s about protecting a mythical figure.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
: One person was punched in the face. People will shoot at you. Our friend [Maineung] was murdered. Who can say if it was because of his views on 112? He was also a Red Shirt.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
: But the fact that society gave the green light to these “garbage collectors” [a new militant group created to “defend the monarchy”]—in another country they’d be a criminal group. Vigilantes.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: Why do we not see the garbage collectors as horrifying here? They’re a self-appointed KKK but in the issue of the monarchy people stand by it. There are also levels of social sanctions. Thailand works in a system of patronage. Who you know is important to everything in everyday life—job security, well-being.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: People’s family members could be denied promotions because the whole clan gets seen as anti-monarchist. Generally you are labeled immoral, ungrateful, even unacceptable. Non-Thai. Some people move houses and neighborhoods to get away from the association caused. People will spit, throw rocks. It can be intense.

Vasyl Stus: When I… speak of 112 I’m not sure how people will see me. That I don’t love XXX can get me anything from weird looks to people won’t talk to me. I am seen as socially deviant, and ostracized. Because I am for freedom of speech I may be called a Communist. In this country the word “republican” is an insult. We don’t speak of it. The general consciousness of people is not democratic. It’s of absolute monarchy.

Marisa Akara
: Why write about the monarchy?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Half of every story in Thailand is Royal. They’re the center of politics. Everything orbits around them. Power is derived from them. Their role is huge, even in personal life, in family. How can we write anything, even a historic novel, when we’re only allowed to touch the subject by praising them in a way that seems too unbelievable to be true?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Yellow writers [those aligned with the Yellow Shirts, ostensibly more Royalist] say that there are lots of other things to write about. That this law is good—it opens us to more scope and positivity. But censorship is never good for art.

Michael K.: That’s something that even PEN Thailand doesn’t know. Our local chapter is a group in support of freedom of speech except when it comes to lèse-majesté. In that case they make an exception. Our friend Maineung was just assassinated. He was a poet and a minor red shirt leader. There’s not been one statement, comment—nothing from PEN Thailand. Which is under the patronage of Her Majesty the Queen.

Marisa Akara: Are you against the King?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: It doesn’t matter. But to be clear I’m not against the King, I’m against 112.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: I’ve never been to any protest, never been on any stage. I’m aligned with the democratic side [not to be confused with the Democrat Party]. I have other things to do—go out, sleep, work… I’m not an ideological person. I don’t see this as a “political thing” although people think so. To me freedom of speech is important the way protecting the environment is important.

Marisa Akara: What’s the chance of change for Article 112?

W.R.: It is very difficult for change to happen. In January 2012 we wrote outlining our supported amendments to the law. But the structure of power in the country has to change.

This is what Prem [General Prem Tisunalonda, the Chairman of the Privy Council] said to US Ambassador Boyce: “Thailand is not like America. What you need to know is that the Prime Minister is just the manager of the shop. The owner is always XXX.”

But in a real democracy the owner of power is the people.

In Bangkok, as long as power resides with him [the speaker pointed to a place on the wall of the café where a photo of the monarch would typically hang] changing the 112 law doesn’t change the situation on the ground.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
: This group of writers isn’t anti-monarchist. We’re anti Article 112. It doesn’t make sense. A monarchy doesn’t have to control through fear in society. Things eventually have to change, but right now, the situation is unpredictable. We’re dealing with the residue of the past and we need education and society to mature to change this.

Marisa Akara: Have you seen any differences in people’s willingness to talk about lèse-majesté?

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
: Yes. With technology like Facebook and Twitter we have more anonymity, so we see more expression. People feel safer. It used to be people would only talk when they were driving cars.

Marisa Akara: Not at home?

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: No. With house help, you never knew who was listening.

This article by Marisa Akara was originally published by PEN on July 1, 2014.

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