Just whose land is Thailand?

Just whose land is Thailand?

The Nitirat campaign to amend Article 112 of the Criminal Code, commonly known as the lese majeste law, has generated a political tempest.

It has struck a consonant chord as much as it has riled apprehensive nerves of reformers and conservatives on both sides of the political fault line centring on the monarchy's role in Thai democracy.

The Article 112 campaign is merely one battle line in Thailand's ongoing search to reconcile monarchy and democracy for its longer-term future. Other battle lines are likely to emerge in what can now be seen as the nascent stage of a great royalist withdrawal _ a logical sequel to eminent social scientist Ben Anderson's analysis of "withdrawal symptoms" after the violence of Oct 6, 1976, arguably the best essay on the nature of Thailand's state and society since its publication.

The most salient difference between the current royalist backlash and crackdown on fair dissent and reasonable reform, and its precursors that culminated in October 1976, is the absence of the Cold War. Without the entwined communist threats at home and abroad, royalist justification and exclusion of dissidents have had to find alternative expressions. The usual suspects among these include the lack of right information about royalism, the patronage and payroll of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and republicanism-mongering. But the trump card in the absence of the communist scare has interestingly been the proprietary ownership of Thailand. If one's views deviate intolerably from the established conventions, he or she can depart and live elsewhere. The views of the owners of Thailand prevail.

So this is a valid and fundamental question: Whose land is Thailand?

Despite Section 3 in Chapter 1 of the constitution, which states that "sovereignty belongs to the Thai people", proprietary claims of Thailand's ownership have become more widespread. In the buildup during the anti-Thaksin protests in early 2006, it was said by a senior figure in Thai society that governments come and go like a jockey riding a horse. The jockey does not own the horse. Ownership belongs to the stable owner.

In another episode at Thailand's film awards in 2009, the best supporting actor proclaimed his love of a large house and for its inhabitants to leave if they were unhappy with its owner. Democrat Party executive Suthep Thaugsuban has made similar comments to chase away opponents who challenged the establishment's centres of power.

More recently, and more than once, army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha admonished reformers of Article 112 to go and live somewhere else. Chalerm Yubamrung, the bombastic deputy prime minister, brought up religiosity when he recently mentioned that even thinking about amending Article 112 was already equivalent to going to hell.

This proprietary claim often extends into the realm of identity. Mr Suthep, for example, said pen khon Thai rue plao _ are you Thai? _ in reaction to the red shirt protests and their comments on stage in 2010. Thus Thai-ness has also been expropriated by some away from others.

Ownership claims of Thailand by established sources of power are particularly resonant among the overseas Chinese business community. A frequently cited metaphor is of the workmen and managers of a shop house. The shop house owner has the final say on the conditions and management of the house. If the house is to be left decrepit and dilapidated in need of repair, it is the discretion and prerogative of the shop house owner.

ASTV/Manager media group boss Sondhi Limthongkul recently exhorted de facto Chartthaipattana Party leader Banharn Silpa-archa to remember his Chinese roots and toe the establishment line in appreciation. Mr Sondhi's point was that the overseas Chinese could not have prospered without royalist generosity and hospitality in decades and centuries past.

But Mr Sondhi's own Chinese-ness _ of which he is proud, in view of his numerous pro-China comments to yellow shirt audiences _ has appeared resentful at times. There was a brief period during the People's Alliance for Democracy protests in 2008, when T-shirts emblazoned with luk Chine rak chat _ Chinese sons and daughters love the nation _ made the rounds among PAD supporters.

If such proprietary ownership of Thailand is accepted, then it would be the end of the Thai saga. It would then require differing viewpoints from establishment preferences to simply yield, concede and submit. But this has not happened.

It has become a contest of who has the final say in Thailand, of whether Thai voters in a shoddy political system rife with corrupt politicians should count more than traditional, extra-constitutional supporters and centres of establishment powers, or vice versa.

The thrust of the reform proposals by the Nitirat group, which comprises seven Thammasat University law lecturers, is designed for establishment centres to still prevail as Thai democracy will continue to mature. For example, one of the proposals is to shift the burden between the accused and the aggrieved. If Article 112 is deemed to have been violated, the prosecutorial burden would fall on the Office of His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary to lay the charge, thereby preventing the longstanding practice of anyone pressing charges against anyone.

Another is to eliminate the minimum jail sentence to make punishment more fitting to the crime. Among Nitirat's clutch of reform proposals, none advocates the elimination of Article 112.

These are not reasonable times in Thailand's climate of fear. This country is in a prolonged bad mood. Nitirat has made its point and should now take a step back. Time is needed for Thai society to digest, dissect and distil its broader collective future in a bid to reconcile monarchy with democracy.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak


A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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