Thailand: The King and Thai Democracy

2006

Sripan Rattikalchalakorn

Following the Thai Rak Thai party electoral victory in February 2005 when it formed a single-party government, Thai and international observers have taken a closer look at the political and economic climate in the country. Sectarian violence in the South; controversies related to appointment of the State Auditor General, who investigates allegations of government corruption; controls on media freedoms; and, debates concerning royal power are indicators of the general political climate. Adding to the 'inclement weather' which democracy has been experiencing is the propensity of Thaksin's lawyers' to take critics of the Prime Minister and the government to court. Interestingly, the more the government gagged criticism in the broadcast media, the more new venues for free expression, such as in universities and public parks, have been used by critics. Demands for the right to criticize the government are gathering a storm threatening to dampen the government's stability and confidence.

On 4 December 2005, on the eve of his official birthday, Thai people around the country listened to the annual address by their beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Having reigned for 60 years, the world's longest serving head of state is widely respected and deeply loved in Thailand. Speaking to the Prime Minister, parliamentarians and the public, the King addressed several issues which have been prominent in the public debate, among them issues related to royal power and thin-skinned litigious politicians. He initially referred to the British constitutional dictum: 'the King can do no wrong'. He rejected this belief pointing out that this amounted to not recognizing the humanity of the King and was therefore pejorative. He said he welcomed criticism as it would ensure that any possible mistakes would be corrected. He reminded the nation that he had always pardoned those who were jailed for lèse-majesté.

The King's address became the principal topic of conversation and reporting for days and even weeks. Following the address, the Prime Minister's lawyers withdrew several lawsuits against media practitioners for allegations of lèse-majesté and slander against the Prime Minister. The Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET) was buoyed by the royal remarks for several consecutive days in December. Media and opposition critics of the government believed that the King's address had showed up the government's intolerance of the democratic right of free expression. Additionally, the King drew attention to the perils of ill-conceived development policies and projects that would not serve the best interests of the nation.

WATCHPOINT: Criticism' and tension between the media and the government are basic elements necessary for a healthy democracy. If a government responds to such tensions by applying lawsuits against critics of its administration, it cannot claim to be democratic.

 

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