Lèse-majesté is the ‘crime’ of offending the dignity of the king, and these days it has gone out of fashion. In Britain, you can say anything you like about King Charles the Turd (as an Irish friend calls him), and no one turns a hair. But if you insult King Maha Vajiralongkorn of Thailand, you’re in deep trouble.
By Gwynne Dyer – September 4, 2023
Thailand’s Lèse-majesté law decrees specifies a jail term of up to fifteen years for insulting the king, and it is vigorously enforced. Every insult attracts a separate punishment, so the penalties pile up fast.
In 2017 a man was sentenced to 70 years in prison for multiple insults, although on appeal it was reduced to only 35 years. (Maybe he repeated some of the insults, and duplicates don’t count.) Even clicking the ‘Like’ button on posts deemed offensive to the king can get you arrested.
Maybe King Vajiralongkorn is thin-skinned, but his personal feelings are irrelevant here. He is the symbol that unites the army, the civil service and the wealthy elite in rejecting the threat of more democracy and greater equality.
For more than twenty years Thailand has been locked in a struggle between the ‘royalists’ and the democrats, and in last May’s election it reached an historic turning point. A youth-oriented party called Move Forward won the most seats in parliament, and made a coalition with the older pro-democracy party (which came second) to take power.
The older party, currently operating under the name Pheu Thai, has led the opposition to the establishment since it was founded by Thaksin Shinawatra and was swept into power in a landslide election victory in 2001. (It has had several names, because it was outlawed several times.)
Thaksin Shinawatra was a former policeman who became a telecoms tycoon and then went into politics. He was a consummate populist, but he kept his promises.
He gave the country universal healthcare, he put money into the villages, he boosted businesses. The country, and especially the poor, flourished under his premiership. So the army overthrew him in 2006, shortly after he had won an even bigger election victory.
He unquestionably did some suspect financial deals on his way to becoming a billionaire, and that continued even after he was prime minister. He also employed police death squads in a brutal ‘war on drugs’. But the army coup happened because he was doing things that made him too popular with the poor.
Mostly the operations to cancel his party’s victories were done by the courts, but the military carried out a massacre of his supporters in 2010 and another military coup against a government led by his sister in 2014. The country has spent twenty years stuck in this futile confrontation that Thais call ‘wongchon ubat’, the evil cycle, and it’s high time to move on.
Last May was a chance to do so because the two big pro-democratic parties, Move Forward and Pheu Thai, won almost two-thirds of the votes and were ready for a coalition.
Unfortunately, the military left a poison pill behind in the form of an unelected 250-person Senate whose members were all appointed by the generals – and can vote on who becomes prime minister. They all voted against the democratic coalition, ostensibly because the Move Forward Party wanted to weaken the Lèse-majesté law.
There it is again: the rallying point that can unite the various anti-democratic forces and block change. And it seems to be working, because Pheu Thai, Shinatra’s party, has abandoned the coalition with Moving Forward and formed a government with the royalists. Rank treachery, of course, but maybe there’s a plan.
Pheu Thai is still dominated by Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister Yingluck and his youngest daughter Paethongtarn, and their price for a deal with the royalists was his return to Thailand after 15 years of exile. He arrived in Bangkok two weeks ago, and already his sentence has been commuted to one year (which he will spend in a well-appointed hospital).
He is 74, so he may not plunge back into active politics, but his presence may give a lift to Pheu Thai and return it to first place in the next election. This coalition cannot last, so that cannot be more than a year or two away.
And then Paethongtarn can reform the coalition with Move Forward, but maybe as prime minister herself. That’s probably the plan. Wheels within wheels, but with luck the ‘evil cycle’ is over.
– Gwynne Dyer is a UK-based Canadian journalist and historian who writes about international affairs
OPINION: Javier Milei, who is very likely to be elected president of Argentina in the October election, is fairly frank in his view of Pope Francis, a fellow Argentine. He calls Francis “a Communist turd” and “the representative of the Evil One on Earth”. Even for a ranter like Milei, who ranks very high on the Trump scale of invective, that’s rare praise.
The white, Republican-voting majority of American Catholics have a somewhat more nuanced way of expressing themselves, but they too see Pope Francis as at best naive, at worst an ideological enemy within the gates. (Most American bishops were appointed by Francis’s two very conservative predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict.)
Pope Francis gives as good as he gets. Last week he called the US branch of the Church “backward”, accusing right-wing American Catholics of replacing faith with ideology. So just another version of the ever-present ‘Culture War’, except that both sides are wearing ecclesiastical vestments.
But it’s actually more complicated than that, because the ‘liberal’ Pope of today was not so liberal when he was starting out back in Argentina in the 1970s. I first heard of him when he was the provincial superior of the Jesuit order in Argentina, and Jesuit priests were being targeted by the military regime’s death squads in the ‘Dirty War’.
They were being targeted because the Jesuits were the foremost organisers in Latin America of a Catholic movement called ‘liberation theology’: distinctly left-wing, working mainly with the urban poor and indigenous people, and hated by the American-backed military regimes that then ruled almost everywhere in South America.
I was travelling around the continent interviewing people for a radio series on the ‘new’ Catholic Church. I’m not a believer, but I had managed to win the Jesuits’ confidence. When I got to Argentina, my Jesuit contacts were two young priests living in a Church-owned house in one of the poorest ‘villas miserias’ (slums) in Buenos Aires.
Radio series don’t pay much, and as a young freelance journalist I was saving money by staying in Church-owned properties whenever possible. (Besides, you learn more that way.) However, these priests warned me not to stay there, as they were expecting a Ford Falcon any day now.
Ford Falcons, as everybody knew, were the cars that the regime’s death squads used to take the suspects to their doom, and these priests were expecting to be arrested, tortured and killed in the near future. But before I changed accommodation, they expressed their anger at being abandoned even by their own Jesuit order, in the person of one Father Bergoglio.
Fr. Bergoglio, of course, later became Pope Francis. He was the head Jesuit in Argentina at the time and a determined enemy of ‘liberation theology’ – so much that the young priests suspected him of collaborating with the junta and probably knowing that they were on the junta’s kill list. They were.
They were duly ‘disappeared’ a few weeks later and never seen again. (These are not the more famous Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics, who were kidnapped by the Argentine Navy in 1976 and did survive, possibly thanks to Bergoglio’s intercession, after five months of torture.) But he was definitely keeping bad company.
I don’t believe that Bergoglio handed over the two young priests I met. They were not in hiding – and I suspect they were courting martyrdom, as some people do in such strange circumstances. I think Bergoglio shared some of the junta’s paranoia about the left at the time, and wasn’t very brave about using his influence to save people. That’s all.
It’s more than forty years later, and people change. Pope Francis is a more mature and less ideological man than the old Bergoglio – but he’s still combative ideologically, and he’s still confused.
He condemns the “obsession” of some Catholics with issues like “abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods” and welcomes transgender Catholics in the Church, but he says gender transitioning is a sin and strongly criticises gender studies, calling it “one of the most dangerous ideological colonisations today.”
He’s equally confused on the political front. He explains that it was NATO “barking at Russia’s door” that “provoked” Moscow and “perhaps facilitated” the invasion of Ukraine.
When he did criticize Russia, he said “Generally, the cruelest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens and Buryats and so on …”
Presumably he means that the Chechens and Buryats are so cruel because they are Muslims and Buddhists, whereas the Russians are at least Christian.
The man may mean well, but he has been promoted to his level of incompetence. You might call it the St. Peter Principle.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “The Shortest History of War.”
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.