Taking royal liberties

Thailand's king is revered and loved, but politicians are using laws that are meant to protect him t

A cat may look at a king, so the saying goes. Not necessarily in Thailand, though, where the world's strictest èse-majesté laws are increasingly being enforced to protect King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his family from the most trivial of slights, regardless of whether the Thai royals have any personal objections to perceived slurs or not.

In the past week two New Statesman contributors have fallen foul of the code, enshrined in section eight of the constitution. Last Monday, Harry Nicolaides, a 42-year-old Australian, was sentenced to three years in jail for writing a book the trial judge said "slandered the king, the crown prince and the monarchy". This, despite the fact that Verisimilitude is a work of fiction and has only a brief reference to an unnamed crown prince; that a grand total of 50 copies were printed, and a meagre seven sold. No matter that it was written four years ago, and Nicolaides knew nothing about the charges. Travelling to and from the country in the intervening period, he filed despatches for the NS from Saudi Arabia and Cyprus, and only found out about his "crime" when he was arrested at Bangkok's airport, from where he was about to catch a flight to Australia.

The vibes player Lionel Hampton once called him “simply the coolest king in the land”

The next day Giles Ungpakorn, a half-British academic, was formally charged under the èse-majesté laws with insulting the king, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Ungpakorn says the accusations are in response to his book A Coup for the Rich, which argued that the military's ousting of the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, in September 2006 was unjustified. The army claimed it was defending the monarchy when it removed Thaksin, whom it said was plotting to install a republic. But the coup's leaders, responds Ungpakorn, "claimed 'royal legitimacy' in order to hide the authoritarian intentions of the military junta. The charges are used against people who disagree with the present destruction of democracy. They are used to create a climate of fear and censorship".

That both men are fearless reporters is not in doubt. Giles Ungpakorn has provided trenchant analyses criticising both Thaksin's populist party and its successors and the conservative, pro-military opposition which took power in December. He has written for many publications including the respected regional web-magazine Asia Sentinel and, last summer, for the NS. Nicolaides is a relative newcomer to journalism and may have been naive about the risks he has taken. But neither man has been guilty of intentionally or directly attacking the monarchy. Democracy is a sickly child in Thailand - there have been 18 coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932; what appears to have changed is that governments are now vastly exceeding their predecessors in using these laws as a rod with which to beat political irritants.

So what of the king himself (pictured below)? In many ways an amiable figure, an accomplished jazz musician who jammed with Benny Goodman in New York and was called "simply the coolest king in the land" by the vibes-player and big band leader Lionel Hampton, he has been a symbol of continuity throughout his long reign (he succeeded his brother in 1946). He is also an important stabilising influence, standing above the opacity and chaos of Thai politics. Most observers agree that when he has intervened in government affairs - opening the palace gates to pro-democracy protesters fleeing police violence in 1973, refusing to endorse attempted coups in 1981 and 1985 and helping ease yet another transition to democracy in 1992 - his actions have promoted moderation and conciliation.

And it is not clear that the 81-year-old monarch would approve of the way the èse-majesté legislation is being used at all. In a national address in 2005, he announced: "If you say that the king cannot be criticised, it suggests that the king is not human. If someone offers criticisms suggesting that the king is wrong, then I would like to be informed of their opinion." Indeed, according to some reports, he has also seen - and enjoyed - the films The King and I, and its more recent remake, Anna and the King, though both are banned because of their portrayal of Bhumibol's great-grandfather, the 19th century King Mongkut. So much for his insistence on the èse-majesté laws.

The public affection and reverence in which the king is held cannot be underestimated. In Bangkok last September, just after Nicolaides was first arrested, I sat by the Chao Phraya river with the distant cries of anti-government demonstrators in my ears, while in front of me pleasure cruisers passed, disco beats pumping, their passengers reduced to dancing silhouettes by the glare of huge neon signs fixed to the boats bearing slogans such as "We love our king!".

But nobody disputes this. Certainly not Giles Ungpakorn, who says, "I am not afraid to face the fact that most Thais at present love and respect the king." The problem, as Asia Sentinel's editor John Berthelsen puts it, is that "you can extend the royals all the way down to the king's shoe-shine boy. They're using this [legislation] for political purposes."

English PEN has been calling for Harry Nicolaides' release since mid-September and Asia Sentinel has set up an online petition demanding the immediate cessation of all èse-majesté trials. The current government, however, has declared that it will actively pursue such charges, and recently blocked over 2,000 websites as a result. For the New Statesman, Giles and Harry are special cases, but they are not alone. This is not about the king. It is about those who wish to stand up for free speech in Thailand.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?

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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis