The Lèse-Majesté law, also known as Article 112 in Thailand, forbids any criticism of the monarchy in the kingdom under punishment of imprisonment. Even those far removed from the machinations of Thai politics are vaguely aware of this law. In an era where basic freedom of speech is held as sacrosanct, this law is globally recognised as being bizarre and archaic, and hardly used for anything other than protecting an already seemingly beloved institution”. This law, however, is not simply used to protect the dignity of the monarch against insult. Lèse-Majesté laws are in reality a relatively small mechanism which is part of a larger systematic structure of censorship, used as means of social coercion to manufacture what we can term royalist realism.
Capitalist realism as defined by Mark Fisher is explained in the quote “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” In Thailand switching out the word capitalist with royalist makes for an eerily similar comparison, that is until very recently. For decades, however, Thai society existed under ‘The Bhumiphol Consensus’, a term coined by professor Kasian Techaphira to define the second half of the reign of King Bhumiphol (Rama 9) who was king of Thailand from 1946 until his death in 2016. Such was the adoration of King Bhumiphol that it was considered sacrilegious to express any doubt in the monarch as well as the wider institution of the monarchy. While Thailand was officially a constitutional democracy, it was clear that King Bhumiphol had the final say in all major matters regarding the governance of the kingdom.
This is not to say that there were no opposition voices to the royalty. Whispers were abound in the kingdom but they were relegated to strictly private circles among trusted friends and family. For decades there were virtually no public displays of dissonance whatsoever. Those few who openly spoke out were immediately punished by Lèse-Majesté laws, while those who were lucky enough to escape into exile abroad remain there to this day. Lèse-Majesté laws are the last legal resort for the Thai superstructure, as part of the multi-layered system for manufacturing consent.
Lèse-Majesté Law: It is illegal to defame, insult, or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent, heir-presumptive, or regent.
The mechanism of Lèse-Majesté has mostly been used during times of political crisis. Ultra-royalist prime minister Sarit Thanarat was the first to utilize the law in the modern era. During Sarit’s premiership, the monarchy was desperately trying to recapture its hold on the kingdom following the coup that transformed Thailand into a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Sarit used the law to silence his own critics who disapproved of the increasing power of the royal palace.
In the decades that followed, the law would often be laid down as a means of making an example of any perceived dissonance. For example, at the height of the student democracy movement in 1976, a man was arrested on charges of lèse-majesté for using a royal village scout scarf to wipe clean a table.
If found guilty perpetrators would typically serve jail sentences between 2-10 years, depending on the severity of the perceived offence. Occasionally sentences of mandatory re-education would be handed out, like in one case in 2014, where a nurse who wore black on King Bhumibol’s birthday was charged with Lèse-Majesté.
There have also been cases where the law has been commandeered by civilians. For example, if two neighbours are having a dispute, one may make a fake social media account in their neighbour’s image and post content that violates Lèse-Majesté so as to have them jailed.
Academia too has been hit hard by the law, one notable case was with the famous scholar Ajarn Sulak who suggested that a legendary 1v1 duel on elephant-back won by a king of Ayutthaya (the kingdom that preceded Thailand) against a Burmese prince 500 years ago may not have happened. This precedent of criminalising insult against, not just the present, but past monarchs, even those from different dynasties, has also been used as a form of censorship for contemporary dissonance. For example, a magazine editor was charged for publishing a satirical cartoon, which depicted a famous statue of 3 former kings wearing face masks, during a bout of severe smog pollution in the northern province of Chiang Mai.
The leftist academic and prominent republican Giles Ji Ungpakorn was also charged with Lèse-Majesté and forced into exile for his book ‘A Coup For The Rich’ in which he criticised King Bhumiphol’s involvement in the coup of 2006. Ungpakorn noted “the lèse-majesté laws are not really designed to protect the institution of the monarchy. In the past, the laws have been used to protect governments and to shield military coups from lawful criticism. This whole [royal] image is created to bolster a conservative elite well beyond the walls of the palace.”
Judges have also said the accuser did not necessarily have to prove the information was factual. One judge famously said, “because if it is true, it is more defamatory, and if it isn’t true, then it’s super-defamatory.”
Despite all of the numerous cases, as mentioned earlier, Lèse-Majesté laws are a relatively small mechanism in the wider manufacturing of consent for the royalist institution and its proponents. Fealty to the monarchy is demanded and constantly reinforced in the kingdom, it’s intertwined through culture, spirituality and any kind of civic duty.
Grandiose portraits of the king and company adorn the streets of the country, while almost every home and business has a portrait of King Bhumiphol or his son, the current king Vajiralongkorn. This is so extreme that it’s considered a small show of dissidence to instead hang a portrait of the reformer king Chulalongkorn, Bhumiphol’s grandfather who died in 1910.
The state school curriculum is heavily focused on Thai exceptionalism, which is constantly linked back to the monarchy. Students learn of the innumerable good deeds done by the royal family, which include protecting them from dangerous outside forces, showering them in charity, and even (to this day) providing the weather conditions for a bountiful harvest. Indeed every morning students line up for the national anthem and flag-raising ceremony which marks the start of the school day.
In Buddhist temples portraits of the monarchy are hung side by side with Buddhist and Hindu gods, embellished by flowers and incense, giving them a god-like aura. It is widely believed even, that the monarch carries so much holy merit that when in his presence some will wash onto you as a blessing. As such, believers flock to public appearances of even relatively minor royals in hopes of catching a modicum of grace.
In the spiralling state bureaucracy of Thailand, sometimes compared to Kafka’s castle, all work is dedicated to not just the state but the monarchy. The act of giving your labour to the state is often perceived as giving yourself to the monarchy as the two are so deeply intertwined. Yellow, the royal colour is worn every Monday, as a show of fealty to the king, as both the late King Bhumibol and the current King Vajiralongkorn, were both born on a Monday. On mondays, Bangkok is awash with yellow shirts, particularly among civil servants, for whom the dress code is mandatory.
For any of those who don’t subscribe to the adoration of the monarchy, life can be made unlivable. As well as the legally codified aspects of fealty the social pressure is immense. Families will disown children should they privately express republican leanings or if they refuse to partake in royalist ceremonies and traditions. Ultra-royalist business owners, which make up the majority of big business owners, will also regularly force employees to take part in or display performative acts of adoration for the monarchy, this can range from wearing a yellow shirt on Mondays, to joining in with royalist religious ceremonies. Those who refuse will likely find themselves out of a job, if not worse, reported for Lèse-Majesté.
This super-structural royalism is so powerful and all-encompassing that certainly during the Bhumiphol Consensus era it was, like capitalist realism, impossible to imagine a world without it. Lèse-Majesté laws were only deemed necessary in the small number of instances of actual dissidence, which were, more often than not, tied to greater political concerns. However, after the death of King Bhumiphol in 2016 and the ascension of King Vajiralongkorn to the throne, this paradigm of royalist realism has finally begun to shift.
A Crack In The Veil
Since becoming king, public adoration for Vajiralongkorn has paled in comparison to his father, while criticisms have grown louder and more vocal. The reasons for this shift can not be explored in this article, lest we find ourselves charged with Lèse-Majesté for naming his perceived transgressions, as so many others have. However, it is fair to say that for a huge number of (mostly younger) Thais, Vajiralongkorn is despised.
In part due to the perceived egregious nature of the new King’s transgressions, and in part due to social media’s ability to anonymise criticism, 2020 saw the near-total collapse of royalist realism. In the summer, after the Covid 19 lockdown, protests that started as a response to the government’s handling of the pandemic quickly spiralled into anti-monarchy demonstrations which not only rocked Bangkok by the sheer number of protestors but by their radical discourse on the monarchy.
Personally, when I first witnessed some of the speeches, signs and performances I was astonished by their boldness and lack of fear over the consequences. I was not the only one, after the tide of anti-monarchism had grown online the floodgates had opened so quickly it caught the majority of the country off guard. Once again, due to Lèse-Majesté laws, we would be putting ourselves at great risk of charges by repeating any specific quotations of this sentiment.
While the protests were at their height the government was uncharacteristically slow to respond. However, since the movement’s momentum has slowed towards the end of 2020 Lèse-Majesté charges have been filed at a rate not only shocking in their quantity, but in their pettiness. While some protestors have been charged with actively trying to physically harm the monarchy, in the now infamous incident where the queen and prince royal’s vehicle was swamped by protestors, others have been charged for such minor offences as wearing inappropriate clothing.
One woman, for example, was charged for dressing too similarly to the queen in a fashion show, while another was charged for wearing an exercise outfit similar to that of the king. Both were deemed by courts to be offensive parodies of the royals. These cases have drawn scorn from human rights groups, however, during a time of global pandemic the Thai state presumably feels it can get away with such gross censorship.
At the time of writing, there are currently 56 cases of Lèse-Majesté charges in the Thai courts. This goes to show that the court was always the final resort for a monarchy that has reinforced its power through almost every possible facet of life in the kingdom.
However, since the protests, the toothpaste is out the tube and many are sure that it can never go back in. The sheer levels of public dissidence and the dramatic rise of popularity in republican exiles overseas mean controlling this new anti-monarchy tendency, manufacturing monarchist consent, is never going to be as effective as it once was.
Without question, in the year 2021 royalist realism has been virtually wiped out. The movement to abolish the Lèse-Majesté laws has become the focus of the majority of activists, with smaller demonstrations popping up in the kingdom on a near-daily basis. These activists hope that removing the threat of Lèse-Majesté can make it possible to criticise the greater royalist superstructure. To once again reference Fisher, vast numbers of the population have exited the royal castle, which now begs the new question: What of capitalist realism?