Thailand’s King May Play Politics (No Offense)

Newsweek.com

Posted Wednesday, December 17, 2008 9:37 AM

Bangkok — If you happened to have been in Thailand this week and wanted to read the December 6-10 issue of The Economist, you could have searched the country without finding a copy. That’s because it contained an article and editorial that were critical of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Rather than risk insulting the king and offending his subjects, Asia Books, which imports the British weekly, chose not to distribute that particular edition.

The pre-emptive move was a sign of respect for the king but also an act of self-preservation. Few people or organizations in Thailand will risk doing anything that might be construed as an insult to the monarch. Thailand’s lese- majeste law may be the most draconian in the world, and it is strongly enforced: Offenders face up to 15 years in jail. Foreigners have been jailed for months and then expelled from the country. The riposte from friendly Thais to a farang contemplating a violation of the law is, “I hope you don’t plan to ever return to Thailand.”

The Economist, writing about Thailand’s current political imbroglio, alleges that the king, who turned 81 earlier this month, plays a role in politics. Officially, the sovereign, as head of state in a constitutional monarchy, is above politics. That alleged involvement, the magazine argues, is not helpful–especially in this time of political instability. Ever since the military ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup in September 2006, the country has staggered from one government to the next. Just this week Parliament selected the fourth prime minister since the coup. Few people are willing to bet that the new premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva, of the Democrat Party, will last much longer that his immediate predecessor, Somchai Wongsarat, who hung on for 77 days.

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Members of the royal family are said to be dismayed about the magazine’s stories, which get into controversial areas last visited in “The King Never Smiles,” a 2006 unauthorized biography by freelance writer Paul M. Handley. The book, banned in Thailand before it was even published, makes similar allegations about the monarchy. “The concern is the myth of a conspiracy between the king and the military,” says an individual with links to the Palace who spoke only on condition of anonymity and because he believes the articles are unfair. People in the king’s inner circle “are genuinely distressed, because this fosters the ideas of conspiracy theorists.”

The Economist, the source pointed out, was not banned by the government. There was no need to do so because distributor acted voluntarily to withhold the offending edition. In the age of the Internet, banning publications anywhere is a trickyand often futileproposition, apart from in countries like China, Burma and North Korea, which tightly control acces to the Web. “Banning a magazine doesn’t make much sense any more, because it gets through – and they know that,” the source said, referring to the Palace. The Economist argues that the lese-majeste law should be revisited. For now, no such plans are on the drawing board.

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