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.