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Opinion

Thai royalists must reconsider tactics in dealing with free speech

Sending a man to a psychiatric hospital is no way to respond to reasonable protest

| Thailand
Protesters gather in front of the Democracy Monument on July 18: over 2,000 mostly young people called for constitutional changes, referencing Tiwagorn Vithiton: "Losing faith is not insanity."   © AP

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

When Thai police detained 47-year-old engineer Tiwagorn Vithiton, who lives in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen, on July 9, they bundled him off to a psychiatric hospital. The apparent reason, widely reported in the media, was suspected insanity after he posted pictures of himself in a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "I'm losing faith in the monarchy."

Tiwagorn was unexpectedly released on Wednesday night, despite a local court decision earlier that day to reject a petition to end his forced detention at the hospital. Shortly before his detention, Tiwagorn had joined Royalists Marketplace, a private Facebook group I established in April to discuss the role of Thailand's monarchy, which now has around 700,000 members. On June 16, shortly after posting the photo, military intelligence officers visited his home and told him to destroy the T-shirt.

Tiwagorn refused. "Losing faith is not anti-monarchist," he wrote on Facebook. "It simply has the same meaning as 'lovelorn,' 'heartbreaking', and 'mistrust.' Everyone is entitled to express their feelings freely as long as it doesn't hurt anyone or break the law."

Nearly four years into the reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and the strenuous official efforts being made to shore up the monarchy's image, Tiwagorn's T-shirt adds to the confusion surrounding the murky world of Thai royal politics. Significantly, Tiwakorn's defiant expression has not been classified as a violation of Thailand's lese-majeste laws where anything considered harmful to the king, queen, heir and regent is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. His alleged offense also fell outside the Computer Crimes Act, an Orwellian-style law dating from 2008 that has been frequently deployed against critics of the monarchy and the government.

Screen grab from Tiwagorn Vithiton's Facebook

In recent years, Thailand has been re-engineering its tactics for dealing with critics, particularly those online. The archaic and self-defeating lese-majeste law has been mothballed. Indeed, since late 2017, no lese-majeste cases have been filed compared to hundreds over the last decade, although exact numbers are hard to establish. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha specifically referenced the sidelining of the law last month.

While some foreign observers have concluded that the human rights situation in Thailand is improving, the sidelining of lese-majeste does not signal greater freedom of speech, nor more open discussion of the monarchy. Instead as Tiwagorn's case shows, other suppressive measures are being used, such as being detained while doctors assess his sanity.

After falling into relative disuse in the late 1990s, lese-majeste was revived after the 2006 coup that deposed the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Damaging the monarchy by dragging it deeper into political disputes, the increase in the use of lese-majeste drew fierce international criticism from human rights groups.

There have been some belated attempts to contain the fallout. After King Vajiralongkorn granted a rare audience in 2018 to Sulak Sivaraksa -- a pugnacious social critic who has fallen foul of lese-majeste strictures several times in the past -- he told local media that the king was well aware of possible damage to his public image and had promised that no new lese-majeste charges should be filed. "I think the king is wise. He wants the monarchy to be more open and more transparent," Sulak said.

Sulak Sivaraksa leaves a court hearing in Bangkok in January 2018.   © Reuters

Many people nevertheless question whether democratization is on the royal agenda, particularly while critics of the monarchy continue to be harassed by the state in other, more oblique ways.

Attempting to dismiss Tiwagorn as insane is certainly one of the more novel approaches. Under the Mental Health Act, his medical evaluation must be completed within 30 days. If there is a trial of some kind, it must come to court within 45 days of his admission to hospital.

In other cases, the blunt instrument of lese-majeste has been replaced by the Computer Crimes Act for online "predators." Comments critical of the monarchy are automatically deemed as "false data" and thereby in violation of the act. A broader sedition law also exists under Article 116 of the criminal code and has been used to prosecute other critics.

Underpinning all this is a collective effort by state agents to fulfill oaths to defend the monarchy. From judges and the police to telecommunications officials, all must do their utmost to defend the monarchy, whether or not lese-majeste is still in play.

There are indications they may be out of step with public opinion. At a public protest on July 18 at Bangkok's Democracy Monument, 1.5 kilometers from the Grand Palace, over 2,000 mostly young people called for new elections, constitutional changes and official condemnation of the recent abduction of dissidents. Referencing Tiwagorn, a large banner declared, "Losing faith is not insanity."

The challenge for the royalist establishment now is to work out if their past strategies have served to strengthen the monarchy -- or more likely added new challenges to its entrenched traditions in these fast-changing times.

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