Saturday, November 21, 2009

The invisible elephant


SO what is really happening (politically) in Thailand?” a visiting American academician specialising in South-East Asian politics asked me.

Instinctively, I glanced to my left and then to my right. It was a habit I picked up whenever I was about to discuss the most taboo subject in Thailand.

On my right in the hip Bangkok cafe was a farang (Thai for “Westerner”) in a business suit with a cliched sexy Thai girl, while on my left were two Thais deep in conversation.

Looks like the coast is clear, I thought. And in a hushed tone I told her what was whispered among Thai political watchers but not discussed publicly, as they did not want to risk charges of lese majeste (a French phrase for “insulting the monarchy”). In the past two years, several people have been jailed for lese majeste.

In 2007, Oliver Jufer, a 57-year-old Swiss, was found to have spray-painted photographs of the King while drunk. He was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison, but subsequently he was pardoned by King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

In 2009, Harry Nicolaides, a 41-year-old Australian writer, was charged with lese majeste for a passage in his novel which briefly mentioned the “romantic entanglements and intrigues” of a fictional Crown Prince.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in jail. Eventually, he received a royal pardon and was released.

In August this year, 46-year-old activist Daranee Chancheonsilapakul (nicknamed “Da Torpedo” for her fiery oratory) was jailed for 18 years for making a series of inflammatory speeches at pro-Thaksin Shinawatra “Red Shirt” rallies. Her remarks, according to The Nation, a Thai English-language newspaper, “were against the 2006 coup but laced with offensive references to the monarchy”.

I also discussed with the academician the recent controversial interview that self-exiled billionaire politician Thaksin gave to The Times (of London). The Times published the text of the interview on Times Online after Thaksin issued a statement saying that the newspaper’s report was “distorted” and “untrue”.

The Abhisit Vejjajiva-led government had banned the Thaksin interview, warning it would take “appropriate action” against media organisations that reported the content of the ousted prime minister’s interview which was “offensive to the royal institution”.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told the media in Bangkok: “I would like to say that Thaksin’s interview violates the monarchy, which is the country’s main institution.”

“I wonder what the hidden agenda was that caused him to make this inappropriate move,” Kasit said, adding that the Justice Ministry would consider whether to charge Thaksin with lese majeste.

On the day I had a chat with the American academician, the police arrested Thatsaporn Rattanawongsa, a 42-year-old Thai radiologist, for allegedly spreading rumours about the King’s health which resulted in a plunge in the Thai stock market in October.

Last month, the stock market plummeted (at one point by 8.22% on Oct 15) over speculation about the health of King Bhumibol, who will be celebrating his 82nd birthday next month. The revered king, who is regarded by most Thais as a demi-god, has been hospitalised for two months for various ailments.

Thatsaporn was the fourth person arrested for damaging national security by posting false information online. In early November, three other Internet users were arrested on the same charge.

One of them was Teeranun Wipuchanin, a former UBS employee. Teeranun had translated a Bloomberg story and then posted it on Prachatai, a popular Thai-language online forum.

“Everybody on that day wanted to know what caused the market to fall. The stock market had already dropped and we did the translation in the evening,” she said.

Interestingly, as Bangkok Pundit in (a Thai political blog) pointed out, the Bloomberg story merely reported that the stock market dropped on speculation over the King’s health.

“Umm, there is a difference between reporting a rumour and reporting an analyst’s opinion that rumours are making the SET (Stock Exchange of Thailand) fall – most people don’t even dispute the fact that the rumours were making the SET fall, but simply reporting this as opposed to the rumour is verboten (forbidden),” he blogged.

There’s an elephant in the room, but either Thais can’t see it or they are afraid to talk about it publicly.

(Published in The Star on November 21, 2009)