Thailand’s Lèse-majesté law decrees specifies a jail term of up to fifteen years for insulting the king, and it is vigorously enforced. Every insult attracts a separate punishment, so the penalties pile up fast.
In 2017 a man was sentenced to 70 years in prison for multiple insults, although on appeal it was reduced to only 35 years. (Maybe he repeated some of the insults, and duplicates don’t count.) Even clicking the ‘Like’ button on posts deemed offensive to the king can get you arrested.
Maybe King Vajiralongkorn is thin-skinned, but his personal feelings are irrelevant here. He is the symbol that unites the army, the civil service and the wealthy elite in rejecting the threat of more democracy and greater equality.
For more than twenty years Thailand has been locked in a struggle between the ‘royalists’ and the democrats, and in last May’s election it reached an historic turning point. A youth-oriented party called Move Forward won the most seats in parliament, and made a coalition with the older pro-democracy party (which came second) to take power.
The older party, currently operating under the name Pheu Thai, has led the opposition to the establishment since it was founded by Thaksin Shinawatra and was swept into power in a landslide election victory in 2001. (It has had several names, because it was outlawed several times.)
Thaksin Shinawatra was a former policeman who became a telecoms tycoon and then went into politics. He was a consummate populist, but he kept his promises.
He gave the country universal healthcare, he put money into the villages, he boosted businesses. The country, and especially the poor, flourished under his premiership. So the army overthrew him in 2006, shortly after he had won an even bigger election victory.
He unquestionably did some suspect financial deals on his way to becoming a billionaire, and that continued even after he was prime minister. He also employed police death squads in a brutal ‘war on drugs’. But the army coup happened because he was doing things that made him too popular with the poor.
This was the time when a newly educated underclass of peasants and urban sweatshop workers was beginning to understand what had happened to them, and Shinawatra became their hero. They would go on giving his party victories in every free election until this last one, but he was in exile abroad with eight years of prison awaiting him if he came home.
Mostly the operations to cancel his party’s victories were done by the courts, but the military carried out a massacre of his supporters in 2010 and another military coup against a government led by his sister in 2014. The country has spent twenty years stuck in this futile confrontation that Thais call ‘wongchon ubat’, the evil cycle, and it’s high time to move on.
Last May was a chance to do so because the two big pro-democratic parties, Move Forward and Pheu Thai, won almost two-thirds of the votes and were ready for a coalition.
Unfortunately, the military left a poison pill behind in the form of an unelected 250-person Senate whose members were all appointed by the generals – and can vote on who becomes prime minister. They all voted against the democratic coalition, ostensibly because the Move Forward Party wanted to weaken the Lèse-majesté law.
There it is again: the rallying point that can unite the various anti-democratic forces and block change. And it seems to be working, because Pheu Thai, Shinatra’s party, has abandoned the coalition with Moving Forward and formed a government with the royalists. Rank treachery, of course, but maybe there’s a plan.
Pheu Thai is still dominated by Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister Yingluck and his youngest daughter Paethongtarn, and their price for a deal with the royalists was his return to Thailand after 15 years of exile. He arrived in Bangkok two weeks ago, and already his sentence has been commuted to one year (which he will spend in a well-appointed hospital).
He is 74, so he may not plunge back into active politics, but his presence may give a lift to Pheu Thai and return it to first place in the next election. This coalition cannot last, so that cannot be more than a year or two away.
And then Paethongtarn can reform the coalition with Move Forward, but maybe as prime minister herself. That’s probably the plan. Wheels within wheels, but with luck the ‘evil cycle’ is over.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.