Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sondhi, Lumphini, and lese majeste

Sondhi Limthongkul, political activist and media mogul, has been taking some hefty swings at Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra recently. This weekend he staged a huge anti-government rally at Lumphini Park, and has been relentlessly critical at his 'Manager' website . The PM has responded in Singaporean fashion by filing libel suits against Sondhi no less than 3 times in the past month. Rumor has it there will be a fourth suit filed by the end of the week. The ruling Thai Rak Thai ('Thai Love Thai') party has been successful in getting a lower court order to shut Sondhi up, though Sondhi has refused to abide by the order, becoming more vocal and strident in his criticism every day.

I suspect the reason Sondhi hasn't been arrested already is that the gov is leery of making a Nelson Mandela type political martyr out of him.

One point that Sondhi has been keen on making is Thaksin's alleged desire to assume a monarchical role, displacing the current and much revered king. As evidence, he points to a recent debacle involving the PM conducting a religious ceremony at the Grand Palace, something the king usually does. Much hay was made about Thaksin sitting in or near the place reserved for the king. You can see a shocking photo of what all the fuss was about here.

Frankly, I chalk this up to a Thai penchant for focusing on irrelevant superficialities one 'logic step' removed from the real question, which is: Regardless of where he sat, is it really the role of the PM to be conducting any religious ceremonies at all?

Sondhi also handed out yellow shirts at the Lumphini rally, which I guess was a reference to the 'people power' of the Aquino revolution that removed Marcos from power in the Philippines in the 1980s. Somewhat troubling, however, was the fact that shirts were printed in Thai to read: We will fight for the King.

Thailand has a law known as lese majeste, which came about when Thailand shifted to a constitutional monarchy under King Rama VII. Although most Thais will tell you (incorrectly) that the law states that it is illegal to say anything bad about the king, the law is actually much more sophisticated than that. Roughly paraphrased, the law states that it is illegal to make an statement or take any action that might result in the monarchy being drawn into controversy. Put another away, it is simply illegal to draw the monarchy into any controversy, period. Whatever your politics, Sondhi is clearly in violation of this law, and his violation is deliberate.

Incidentally, recent statements by the military brass expressing their love for the king and threatening to intervene on his behalf also fall into this category of lese majeste.

A few officers attempted to argue around this point by stating that they are duty bound to protect the monarchy. In point of fact, the military takes its orders from the executive branch, and its duty is to uphold the constitution, not any particular institution. It is also certainly not an independent police force entrusted with enforcing domestic laws like lese majeste, or appointing itself arbiter of what is 'good for the people'.

Despite my criticism of Sondhi, it is nice to see Thaksin getting bitch smacked by someone after 5 years of arrogant, reactionary, and generally inept rule. Although I see Thaksin's corruption as mild and barely objectionable by Thai standards, his failure on the policy front as well as his ridiculous Issan vote buying (with public money, not his own) like the 'million baht village fund' or the abortive attempt to purchase a British football team are things that have received inadequate coverage and analysis in the Thai press. The recent moves by Sondhi have actually woke the traditional Thai press up from its mid-afternoon som tam nap and it will be interesting to see if their desperate scramble to appear relevant will result in truly professional reportage in the future.