Campaigning on lèse-majesté

In a recent post, Andrew Walker mentioned that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra had demonstrated an “unwillingness, or inability, to put in place any meaningful reform of Thailand’s lèse-majesté law” which had seen “outrageous prison sentences.” He also noted that the sentencing of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was an “obscene legal abuse.” I agree on all counts.

I also have great respect for the role played by New Mandala in opening up debates on lèse-majesté (LM) and the monarchy in recent years. Likewise, Andrew’s positions on the monarchy and LM have been very important interventions. For all this good work, however, I have some reservations regarding his most recent post.

I start to diverge from Andrew when he states that: “One line of argument that has emerged in the flurry of debate in recent weeks is that non-Thai journalists and academics must lead the campaign…”. I admit that I haven’t seen this call for leadership by foreign academics on LM. (The discussion of journalists was long and involved, so I won’t comment further on those and the responses.)

In the original post, now with over 100 comments, I interjected on academics with a statement that they had “been too quiet on this sentencing [of Somyot].” That comment was not addressed to any particular nationality of academic. The other comment on academics was essentially supportive of “foreign academics … [who] have fulfilled their professional obligations. You will not find a credible recent study of Thailand by a respected international academic that fails to acknowledge the difficult issue of the monarchy when appropriate.” It strikes me that this comment, if a tad overblown, is telling; such a statement could not have been made 10-15 years ago.

Andrew’s comment that he is “uncomfortable about the claim that non-Thai commentators have a central role to play in the lèse-majesté reform campaign” is, I think, something of a strawperson argument. Yet the comments he proceeds to make on his reservations about the role of foreign academics deserve consideration.

Andrew’s first reservation is “practical.” If I am not misreading him, his view seems to be that junior academics should not necessarily “speak the truth” on Thailand. He states: “The careers of journalists and academics who work on Thailand are dependent on ongoing access to it. The idea that they should give up that access in order to speak truth to power is noble, but it is unrealistic.”

I find it surprising that junior academics are advised to be self-censoring. Of course, I understand that academics in places where the truth cannot be stated face real threats to their person and freedom. However, I can’t think of circumstances where I would feel comfortable advising a graduate student or junior colleague to not speak the truth. In many countries, one of the privileges of working in a university is academic freedom, which we sometimes have to struggle to defend. It seems odd to advise junior colleagues to ignore that privilege – indeed, do it damage – in order to research and write but “not speak the truth.” My view is that senior academics should encourage their students and junior colleagues to be fearless, ethical and noble.

Andrew’s second “reservation” has to do with political strategy. His view is that an elected government can only achieve reform if there is an “electoral cost-benefit ratio shift … in favour of reform.” Hence, “Western commentators can bang on … for as long as we want, but reform of lèse-majesté will only come when there the government feels confident to act without prompting a backlash…”. While I’m not convinced that all political reform is based on electoral sums, even if it is, I am uncertain why this should be a reason for an academic to hold his or her tongue.

Andrew’s suggestion that academics are speaking to the converted on LM and arguing that they have little or no “meaningful role in shifting opinions among the majority” is probably true for Thailand’s voters, but not for an international audience. I am convinced that the more critical academic commentary on the monarchy and LM has had a marked impact on the thinking of international audiences in embassies, parliaments, universities, the media and beyond. As noted above, the academic discussion of LM and the monarchy, internationally and within Thailand, has advanced considerably since the 2006 military coup.

Finally, in his list of reservations, Andrew refers to “non-Thai commentators” as possibly strengthening “the hand of these who defend the status quo” by being hypercritical of LM. I have no way to judge this speculation although we do know that ultra-nationalist rhetoric is as likely to round on foreign commentary just as much as it is threatening of domestic criticism.

In this listing of reservations it is noticeable that Andrew leaves out the possibility that “non-Thai” commentary can be advantageous for domestic critics. Reading blogs, social media and newspapers from Thailand, I am pretty sure that international support is generally considered useful – sometimes even important – for locals who strive for more political freedom including free expression.

In some very dark days, foreign support and commentary for those jailed for political offenses was important. Not all academics supported those political prisoners then and there are a wide range of academic motivations and political positions now. However, when some see “outrageous prison sentences” handed out for LM, I see no reason why outrage can’t be expressed. If that outrage drives some academic research and writing, some of it may be better for it and reveal that speaking the truth is noble.