Saturday, March 21, 2009

Khi Kwai on Thai Culture and Democracy

This is an excellent blog and the analysis, from my point of view, is closer to the truth than anything I have read anywhere else.

The battle lines are drawn, in the ongoing fight over Thailand’s grotesque lèse majeslaws. It’s “Western” democracy versus “Thai” culture. In contemporary political discourse, after all, ”culture” is just about the only word whose international currency rivals democracy’s. To be sure, culture commands more respect than the “dictatorship” and “oppression” it is frequently invoked to mask. As a justification for torture, murder, and the arbitrary imprisonment of political opponents, pseudo-cultural arguments are not only effective at home —where they can be tailored to fit just about any narrative about the imperative to protect traditional values from corrupting alien impositions. They also appeal to a sizable constituency of self-loathing Westerners whom third world dictators have somehow turned into their apologists — useful idiots persuaded not only that basic human rights are, indeed, “alienable” but also that championing the right of non-Western peoples to speak their minds or otherwise control their own destiny amounts to doing violence to their cultural heritage.


Third, it has escaped many on both sides of this debate that lèse majesté legislation as it is currently interpreted and enforced is not something that has existed in Thailand from time immemorial. In fact, at least with respect to the monarchy, the Thai press was immeasurably more free a century ago than it is today. For much of their rule, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) and King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) — whose job description, it should be noted, was “absolute” (not “constitutional”) monarch — were subjected to vicious criticism and sometimes pointed derision by the local press. And though repression was intermittently applied, the Thai journalists of the time could afford to be much more than the neutered bunch of sycophants they have now become. By contemporary standards — in an obscurantist time when restrained, somewhat apologetic articles in the Economist pass for mortal affronts — the cartoons and editorials routinely printed in the pages of early twentieth century Thai newspapers are genuinely shocking. Scott Barmé’s book Man, Woman, Bangkok provides an especially compelling illustration.

Once again, these considerations point to the conclusion that there is nothing especially “Thai” about lèse majesté. The legislation itself has little to do with Thai culture. In fact, Thai society had shown itself mature enough to tolerate, for decades prior to the more recent restrictions, open discussion of the monarchy. Lèse majesté is rather but a quintessentially modern instrument of repression that leaders like Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat instituted to stifle political debate about the very content of Thai cultural values and identity. It exists not to defend Thai culture, but to enforce the vulgar, comic-book version of Thainess the military and bureaucratic elites have produced and propagated to advance no cause greater than their own aggrandizement. In this sense, those in Thailand and abroad who defend lèse majesté legislation on cultural grounds would do well to read some Thai history before they accuse foreign observers of ignorance and Thai dissidents of apostasy.

Read the whole thing here.

Another thing that I want to point out is that the media criticism of the monarchy actually goes back further than King Vajirayudh.

American missionary Dan Beach Bradley used to have dueling opinion pieces in the Bangkok Recorder--the first newspaper in Thailand-- with King Mongkut over religion and politics.

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