Opinion: Another Episode of Thailand a Society in Denial

Police arrest a man who graffiti the wall of the Grand Palace complex on Mar. 28, 2023.
Police arrest a man who graffiti the wall of the Grand Palace complex on Mar. 28, 2023.

The spray-painting of an anti-lese majeste law message and anarchy symbol on the wall of the Grand Palace complex on Tuesday has sparked a debate following the deep political division line in Thai society.

Ultra-royalists were gravely offended as they considered the wall almost sacred if not sacred. They saw it as an act of vandalism against a symbol of Thai national pride.

An example of this being an administrator of a fish feed company social media had to “resign” on Wednesday after the person adapted the graffiti on the wall of the Grand Palace incident and photoshoped it with a commercial message to promote the feed. The company, NDBC NS Distribution Co., then cut him loose. In the photoshop image, the graffiti protester spray painted a message advertising fish feed with images of two fish.

Others feel condoning such acts would be counterproductive to the goal of amending or abolishing the royal defamation law and the reform of the monarchy. One prominent political activist, Nuttaa “Bow” Mahattana, who is critical of the lese majeste law, tweeted to me Wednesday saying the lese majeste law has been thoroughly debated, but was not it that “nothing has changed because people spend their energy on supporting such crazy acts?”

That was a fair question to ask. One must ask whom the graffiti protester wants to convey the message to because royalists and ultra-royalists were clearly offended, and it is unlikely to encourage a dialogue across the political divide.

The 25-year-old graffiti protester, identified as Sutthawee by the local press, was arrested on spot that day and has been charged with violating Historic Site Act as well as Cleanliness Act. The former comes with a maximum imprisonment term of seven years and a fine of up to 700,000 baht. He is currently out on bail.

I see things differently from Nuttaa. If anything, there has been no real deliberation on the issue of the controversial lese majeste law (not to mention monarchy reform) in Thai society.

The boldest and most participatory attempt occurred back in 2012 when over 26,000 people, led by former Thammasat University rector Charnvit Kasetsiri, signed a petition to request the parliament to open a debate on the lese majeste law. The parliament, despite being required by the law to hold a debate because enough people signed the petition, simply refused to do so.

Truth is, Thailand has not been able to freely discuss or deliberate about the lese majeste law (not to mention monarchy reform) in a meaningful way. Currently, only the opposition Move Forward Party vows to amend the law after the general election. The main opposition Pheu Thai Party, which is leading in virtually all polls to win the most seats, remains noncommittal on the issue.

Smaller royalist parties clearly oppose such a move. A few weeks ago, I asked Chart Thai Pattana Party leader Varawut Silpa-archa if he would consider joining a coalition with Move Forward Party and Varawut flatly said no as they respect the monarchy.

Given the situation, one may be too hopeful to expect the next parliament to hold a debate on the merit or controversial aspects of the law which includes a harsh maximum imprisonment term of 15 years, lack of clear definition of the difference between insulting and honest criticism stipulated in the law, and the fact that anyone can file a police complaint accusing another of defaming the monarchy instead of having that task be carried out by the Royal Household Bureau.

On the other hand, the vast majority of the mainstream mass media and press associations continue to contribute to the stifling environment by their incessant self-censorship and omission of news and information critical of the monarchy institution.

Put it simply, all you can find on most of the mainstream Thai press about the monarchy is good news, great news, and more great news. Anything perceived as potentially negative or critical of the monarchy has little or no place in the Thai press. It is as if all of us want to revere and worship the monarchy like God in a fundamentalist society where no criticism shall be tolerated.

Time and again I have urged media associations, particularly the Thai Journalist Association (TJA), which is the largest such association to act. My proposal is we can try to break the ersatz situation by having TJA issue a statement detailing why the lese majeste law severely hinders press freedom and make critical coverage of the monarchy by the press impossible.

This will serve as a wakeup call to the general public. If that is too much to ask, and for whatever reason, then they can at least hold a public symposium on the lese majeste law and press freedom with qualified experts invited as speakers or commission a study by scholars on the impact of the lese majeste law on press freedom in Thailand.

A source within TJA told me they are trying to find a way, but it has been months if not years now and there is nothing. Whenever we celebrate Thai or World Press Freedom Day without acknowledging the elephant in the room, we all should be ashamed of ourselves.

It is these suffocating and stifling environments that make people like Sutthawee feel desperate. He probably knew what is in store for him as the act was committed at around 5.30pm and not in the middle of the night. (To be fair to Nuttaa, some end up baselessly slandering the monarchy on Facebook groups such as the Royalist Marketplace Talad Luang and that is never helpful to any hope for deliberation).

To me, Sutthawee is not a nutjob and his act is not crazy even if I do not condone such an act – it is an act of a desperate man stuck in a society in denial.