The brighter side of lese majeste

The brighter side of lese majeste

Too often we focus on the negative and fail to appreciate the positive. After all, mankind's penchant for complaining is spiritually gratifying and psychologically therapeutic, while a pat on the back is nothing but a selfless act.

Thailand has made positive progress concerning freedom of speech and the lese majeste law, and that should be recognised.

When magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk received an 11-year sentence for crimes related to lese majeste in January, much was made of the case.

From supporters of the law, there were cheers and applause. From opponents, there was an outcry and condemnation.

On the morning of Saturday, Feb 2, at the Chula-Thammasat traditional football match, dozens of students wore black shirts with the slogan "Free Political Prisoners" on the front. They had fliers, placards and many wore masks of Somyot.

A popular image that was circulated through emails, Twitter and Facebook pages was of the spectator stand, where students unveiled a large banner with "Free Somyot" written in English on it.

Would the students have dared to do this 10 years ago, five years ago, or even two?

Two years ago, writing a commentary on lese majeste was as tricky as tightrope walking on dental floss. One had to be ever so careful with the wording, and surely the comment section on the Bangkok Post website would be locked for such a piece.

Today, commentaries on lese majeste are routine whenever the issue comes up. Writers are ever more critical of the controversial law and its usage _ and the comment section on the website is usually open.

Of course, the webmaster is still careful in selecting comments. This is because we at the Post don't have the luxury of anonymity and are accountable _ read three to five years in prison. That prospect surely isn't on anyone's list of "things to do before I die".

Nevertheless, to discuss the lese majeste law and the monarchy publicly was a hyper-sensitive matter 10 years ago, five years ago, or even two years ago.

But today, things really are different.

The present situation regarding freedom of speech in Thailand is still far from ideal, but things are changing, and that is something we should recognise. In this recognition we can then nurture and foster an environment that is more conducive to freedom of speech.

The current controversy is over Thai PBS's Tob Jote political talk show, which featured a five-part series debating the role of the monarchy.

Put it into perspective: The station had the courage to do such a show, and it was aired without some invisible hand first smiting it.

The show wasn't yanked while on the air because somebody made a phone call to somebody. The station too defied threats and aired the last episode of the series.

Finally, Thai PBS formed a legal team to deal with any lawsuits or criminal charges they might face.

This was a concerted effort to stand for freedom of speech. Imagine if this were 10 years ago, five or even two.

Meanwhile, only perhaps a couple of hundred people showed up at the station to protest against the show, and army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha could do nothing more than just speak out against it. The Royal Thai Police could do nothing but promise to investigate the show.

By "do nothing", we mean that they could not stop the airing of the entire five-part series.

Ten years ago, five or even two, such a show would probably have been yanked 10 seconds into the intro music of the first episode.

Times are changing because people are pushing the envelope. In this, the media should take the lead. Not because we don't respect the monarchy _ we do _ and not because we are not loyal to the monarchy _ we are.

We should take the lead because we believe healthy, constructive discussion is a cornerstone of democracy. Because we believe an open discussion is vital for Thailand to move forward.

Because we are merely following the advice of His Majesty the King, who said during his birthday speech in 2005: "Actually, I must also be criticised. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know. Because if you say the King cannot be criticised, it means that the King is not human."

He later added, "If the King can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down upon him because the King is not being treated as a human being. But the King can do wrong,"

Times are changing and we can't turn back the clock unless we shut down all information technology systems _ pull the plug on the internet, shoot down the satellite dishes and confiscate smartphones.

There is no going back to year zero. Thai people, like most people, have access to much more information than ever before.

While our government bureaucracies are still outdated, Thai citizens are busy devouring information right in the palms of their hands.

Witness the debates raging on panthip.com. Check out the comments on youtube.com. Surf the various political websites.

People are consuming information, passing on information and speaking out, arguing their stance on anything and everything.

Of course, the internet is also where the most profoundly stupid Thais can air their ignorance boldly and arrogantly, just like their counterparts in Western democracies and on the Bangkok Post forum. In the spirit of democrac,y even the profoundly stupid can have their say.

Just watch American daytime talk shows.

No matter how hard the Information and Communication Technology Ministry tries, for every website they shut down, at least 10 more pop up the next day.

You can't fight it. You can't stop it.

Every Thai can learn about the tragic case of Ampon Tangnoppakul, or Uncle SMS, if they so desire. He even has his own Wikipedia page, long on details, including the text messages in question, both in Thai and in English.

Thailand is changing. Freedom of speech today is still a far cry from what it should be, but compared to 10, five or two years ago, there has been a lot of progress.

This is something everyone should recognise and appreciate. From this point we can nurture and foster freedom even more by pushing the envelope further, but in a constructive way as opposed to a profoundly stupid one.

Thailand and the culture of the East in general will never be like Western democracies, not in the foreseeable future. We have different cultural DNA, our social values are different, our national psyches are an ocean apart.

Where freedom of speech in the West means institutions like royal families and religion are tabloid fodder and material for comedy skits, in Thailand and the East we still afford them a strong measure of respect and decency.

This does not make one culture better than the other. Just as there's spaghetti bolognese and spaghetti tom yum kung, diversity is a fact of life and localisation is a matter of appreciating this diversity.

Hence, while we encourage an open, critical discussion, we may draw the line at insults and making fun. But even in this, we should do so out of respect for cultural norms and social values, and not because of legislation that threatens three to five years' imprisonment, not because of blind fanaticism and not because of sinister groups and individuals aiming to use the law to further their political agendas.

We can nurture the spirit of freedom by recognising and appreciating the progress we have made. We can continue to encourage a positive atmosphere in Thailand and the consciousness of the Thai people to get to a place where we can stand up and speak our beliefs, while letting our own good consciences guide the respectfulness and decency of our speech.

So here's to Thai PBS: Keep up the good work.


Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at voranaiv@bangkokpost.co.th

Voranai Vanijaka

Bangkok Post columnist

Voranai Vanijaka is a columnist, Bangkok Post.


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