All Hail the King! Or Else.

Now that we have left Thailand, I can speak freely.

As a US citizen, the concept of having a king or queen is pretty foreign to me. If your country insists on being hopelessly anachronistic, might I suggest you elevate a kindly older woman with a bunch of Welsh corgis to a mostly symbolic post? And do host an ongoing debate on abolishing the monarchy, won’t you?

In Thailand, the king’s image is everywhere. On private buildings, on city hall, at intersections, in malls, in temples, and on the money. That’s fine, I guess that’s what you do when you have a king.

To its credit, Thailand converted to a constitutional monarchy way back in 1932, meaning that the elected government makes the laws, while the king is basically a figurehead. Bravo! But wait, what’s this relic, still on the books: Article 112, a draconian law protecting the king from defamation and criminalizing inappropriate discussions about the monarchy. Criminal investigations are launched over this. People are arrested. Isn’t this the 21st century? Isn’t this country a player in the world community? This is ridiculous!

Guess who agrees with me on this: the King of Thailand. In his birthday speech in 2005, the king indicated that he could handle some criticism, saying, “Actually I want them to criticize because whatever I do, I want to know that people agree or disagree… I must also be criticized. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know. Because if you say the King cannot be criticized, it means that the King is not human.” He also rather ominously said, “If they criticize correctly, I have no problem,” so I’m not joining the fan club just yet. Even under pressure from groups like Human Rights Watch, the Thai government has refused to loosen up. After all, the anti-defamation statute is a great way for the ruling party to harass members of its political opposition.

It seems to this American that the ultimate act of kingly benevolence would be for the king to abolish himself and save his country a bunch of money on palaces and parades, which could be used for, say, garbage collection. In this place, with its long royal history and neighboring monarchies, quitting the king would probably be seen as diminishing Thai prestige, so it’s probably not going to happen. In that case, how about taking the monarch’s advice and allowing public discussion of the monarchy? Queen Elizabeth seems to have done just fine without the protection of draconian laws.

That’s me whining. What do the Thai people think of all this? It’s their opinion that matters. Let’s see: they dutifully rise for the playing of the national anthem before every movie showing (I went to see Hugo). And, walking to a Metro stop one day, I was surprised when this happened:

National pride or forced patriotism? We gently nibbled on the edges of the topic with a few Thais we met, and all changed the subject. That’s my problem: people not being able to speak their minds. Oops, now that I’ve said that, it’s possible that I won’t be allowed back into Thailand. Then again, I would be happy to return to a more open and fair Thailand… with a little less garbage.

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