Anybody who feared that the new Thai government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra would fail in its duty to crack down on those who commit lèse majesté against the revered royal family can be greatly reassured by the recent words and deeds of the incoming administration.
Chalerm Yubamrung, the widely respected Deputy Prime Minister, has announced that hunting violators of Article 112 of the country’s Criminal Code is one of his top priorities (presumably along with grooming his popular sons to follow in his esteemed footsteps). As the Bangkok Post reported last week:
Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung has promised to crack down on websites with lese majeste content and to look into alleged intimidation of the press by red shirts.
Mr Chalerm, who oversees the Royal Thai Police Office, said taking action against websites containing content that insults the monarchy would be one of his top priorities…
Mr Chalerm said he would tell the police force to set up a war room to deal with websites with lese majeste content straight away. “Such websites will not be tolerated by this government. I will take action as quickly as possible,” Mr Chalerm said.
Sensibly, the authorities have decided to focus on Facebook, which has become the main forum for Thais who oppose Article 112 to discuss their heretical views. On Thursday, police arrested a 40-year-old man for Facebook postings which allegedly defamed the monarchy. He has mercifully been denied bail, and so can no longer pose an immediate threat to Thai national security. It is believed to be the first lèse majesté arrest under the new government, although since the authorities often keep such arrests secret, presumably to prevent dangerous panic, this cannot be confirmed. The Associated Press has the story:
BANGKOK (AP) — Police have arrested a Thai computer programmer on charges of insulting the nation’s revered king on a Facebook page, his lawyer said Monday.
The charges carry a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. Surapak Puchaisaeng, a 40-year-old Bangkok resident, was also accused of violating the Computer Crime Act for the alleged defamatory comments, his lawyer Lomrak Meemuean said.
Surapak denied insulting 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Police confiscated his desktop and laptop computers, his lawyer said. Cases involving insults to the monarchy, known as lese majeste, have skyrocketed in recent years, but Friday’s arrest of Surapak is the first since a new government took power in August, according to the activist network Freedom Against Censorship Thailand…
The lese majeste law covers anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir to the throne or the regent.” The 2007 Computer Crime Act, which prohibits circulation of material that jeopardizes national security or causes panic, carries a maximum jail term of five years and a fine of 100,000 baht ($3,300). Critics say the lese majeste law is frequently used as a weapon against political opponents. Almost any critical comment touching on the monarchy can be construed as disloyalty to the institution.
As is by now widely known, for several months I have been working on an extensive analysis of Thailand’s political crisis based on a detailed reading of more than 3,000 confidential U.S. diplomatic cables which were obtained by WikiLeaks. In the course of my work on “Thailand’s Moment of Truth” – also known by its Twitter hashtag #thaistory – it has alarmingly come to my attention that several other Thais who are still at large have committed egregious violations of Article 112. As a public service to Thailand, and to assist Prime Minister Yingluck and Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm in hunting down these reprobates and bringing them to justice, I would like to publicly name and shame the worst offenders in this article. Let us hope the menace of lèse majesté is soon eradicated once and for all.
1. THAKSIN SHINAWATRA
Thailand’s fugitive former prime minister is widely suspected of harbouring unacceptable views about the monarchy, and the leaked U.S. cables are littered with blatant proof of this. Perhaps the most shocking comments of all can be found in cable 06BANGKOK2990 from May 2006. It appears that Thaksin wilfully chose to ignore the fact that the Thai monarchy is above politics and does not take sides or support extra-constitutional interventions against democratically elected governments, and made a number of outlandish claims to Karen Brooks, a fellow of the Council for Foreign Relations and a former director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council:
Thaksin accepted no responsibility for the current political crisis, blaming everything on the jealousy of a “provincial” royal family who feared that Thaksin would supplant them in the hearts of the peasantry, and on the machinations of “courtiers” who manipulated the King…
In a lengthy discussion with former NSC official Karen Brooks, Thaksin portrayed himself the victim of a “palace coup.” He dropped several bombshells which, if true, recast the history of the past six weeks. Thaksin’s story now is that the King explicitly told him to step aside during the fateful audience on April 4 He told Brooks that he had planned to step aside after the election, but he wanted to stay on through the King’s 60th anniversary celebrations, and then resign. At the audience with the King, however, his hand was forced. After the audience, he gave his emotional speech announcing that he would not be PM in the next Parliament…
Thaksin claims that even this was not enough for the Palace. A few hours after the speech, he said, the King’s principal private secretary, Asa Sarasin, called him and said that he needed to “go completely.” Thaksin agreed to do so in three stages: he would leave as PM, then leave as MP, and finally leave as party leader. This was the reason he suddenly took “vacation” immediately after his announcement that he would step down.
Thaksin spun an elaborate tale of palace intrigue, accusing privy councilors Prem and Surayud of conspiring against him, including blaming Surayud for bringing Gen. Chamlong out of retirement to head the opposition “People’s Alliance for Democracy.” He claimed that courtiers in the palace are manipulating the infirm and isolated King… He unironically compared himself to Aung San Suu Kyy – the winner of a democratic election who is not allowed to take office. He dismissed the courts’ annulment of the elections as a sham. He claimed that, if it were not for his financial power and grassroots support, he’d be chased into exile.
It is shocking enough that Thaksin should spread the scurrilous claim that Prem and Surayud were working with the palace to undermine him, and that they would attempt to chase him into exile. But then he made even more unacceptable comments:
Thaksin repeated his theory that the King sees Thaksin as rival for the loyalty of the people in the countryside. Thaksin denied trying to rival the King, saying that he was a just a “simple peasant” who wanted to be among the people and eat in noodle shops. He described the King, with barely-concealed disdain, as “provincial,” unaware of the changes that had taken place in the world (“never been on a Boeing 747”), and accused him of “thinking he owns the country.” Thaksin advisor Pansak Vinyaratn said that recent events were a return to “absolute monarchy.” Thaksin told Brooks that he “cannot come back as prime minister as long as this King is alive.”
While it may be true that King Bhumibol has never been on a 747, it is widely known that other members of the royal family have a great affinity for flying, and Thaksin’s comments represent a reprehensible slur on the revered monarchy.
To add insult to injury, Ralph “Skip” Boyce, who was U.S. ambassador at the time and in whose name the cable was sent, appears to partially agree with Thaksin’s disgraceful claims:
While Thaksin’s self-serving analysis is suspect on several counts, we believe that there is an underlying truth to it. The Palace has aligned itself against Thaksin, and the momentum now is all on the side of those forces trying to push Thaksin as far out of politics as possible, and keep him out for as long as possible. Thaksin is on the defensive, fighting for his political life.
Boyce should be put on a Thai immigration blacklist immediately, and arrested and put on trial if he ever sets foot in the Land of Smiles again.
In July 2007, Thaksin made a highly incendiary claim that an unnamed “person with charisma” acting outside the bounds of the constitution was trying to overthrow his government. It was widely understood that he was referring to retired General Prem Tinsulanonda, who was prime minister of Thailand from 1980 to 1988 before becoming head of Bhumibol’s Privy Council, a body of respected elder statesmen who provide advice to the king. Thaksin himself later confirmed this to Boyce over lunch in a Bangkok restaurant (they had steak):
I started out raising Thaksin’s inflammatory comments to civil servants last week, in which he described a “charismatic person” trying to overthrow the government. Although government and party spokesmen have tried to deny it, Thaksin freely admitted to me that he was referring to Privy Council President Prem. He said that he “wanted to flip on the lights and flush out the ghosts.” It was wrong, and undemocratic, for Prem to work against the PM behind the scenes. Thaksin alleged that Prem was trying to influence various judges involved in the key cases pending, including by “dangling the prospect” of a privy council position before one of them.
Instead of storming out of the restaurant in horror, Boyce continued to listen to Thaksin’s disgraceful criticisms of the monarchy:
He extolled his Thai Rak Thai as a model of democracy and said that his economic policies had made the rural population “richer and smarter” and therefore less beholden to the King. This was the root of the King’s antipathy to him…
Thaksin launched into an attack on the King and his vaunted “sufficiency economy” model. Thaksin said that he was proud of his origins as “a peasant;” he had gotten ahead by managing debt and risk, and this was what the rural population needed to do. (Comment: Thaksin neglects to mention that it helps to have prominent relatives, marry well, and get advantageous government concessions from your friends. End comment.) Thaksin claimed that the policies advocated by the King kept the people poor, while TRT’s policies had changed the countryside, making the people “smarter and richer” and less dependent on the King. This was part of the reason for the King’s opposition to Thaksin. [06BANGKOK4041]
It is widely known that King Bhumibol’s “sufficiency economy” model should be the backbone of Thailand’s rural economy, and Thaksin’s astonishing attack on the theory represents another blatant breach of Article 112.
2. PANSAK VINYARATAN
See above. And as if that were not bad enough, Thaksin’s leading policy adviser made other unconscionable claims to U.S. diplomats. In April 2006, Pansak alleged that despite the king’s well known-wisdom, Bhumibol was being duped and manipulated by a shadowy clique of palace insiders:
The King wanted to avoid involvement, however, a shadowy group close to him was backing the opposition. According to Pansak, Thaksin was well aware that “The palace does not like him.” [06BANGKOK2646]
In March the same year, Pansak made the seditious claim that powerful people within the palace were working with other wealthy elites to try to undermine democracy:
The current political crisis is the “last hurrah of the old wealthy class,” according to Pansak. This cabal of political and economic elite who have dominated modern Thai society are “absolutely, deeply resentful” of Thaksin, who Pansak suggests is a new type of businessman and politician. Pansak said he told Thaksin, “all of these people who have lost their role in society, who have lost their shirts because of arrogance, want to come back (and defeat Thaksin.) ” This “unholy alliance” of big business, the Democrat Party and “some people close to the palace” remain feckless. They have no specific programs or platforms and lack even the leadership to defeat Thaksin, according to Pansak. They had to get media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul “out of the grave” to lead their cause. They “keep losing at the polls because they never follow through on their promises.” After decades of dominance under both military and civilian rule they have been pushed aside by Thaksin, “someone who actually does what he says he’ll do.”
According to Pansak, these elite “dream that pre-97 (the era predating the current constitution, which was marked by unstable political coalitions prone to party switching) can come back…they are dreaming.” Shifts in the regional economy were also contributing to the waning influence of the traditional elite. [06BANGKOK1472]
Pansak even told Boyce and Eric G. John, who was to take over as the next U.S. ambassador, that the monarchy should stay out of politics, before adding some cryptic -and highly disrespectful – comments:
Absent from Pansak’s “big-think” analysis was any explicit mention of a role for the monarchy in a new Thai democracy. However, Pansak did diverge from a discussion about the political opposition with a cryptic sentence or two that seemed to suggest a preference for a respected but politically uninvolved monarch. “To revere the King in the correct manner is to allow him to be in the palace with happiness and his eunuchs only come out of the palace to go to the supermarket. So always fund beautiful roads for eunuchs to go back to the palace…the situation now is, build beautiful roads for eunuchs to go back to the palace.” [06BANGKOK1472]
In September 2006, Pansak repeated the claim that Prem and others close to King Rama IX were actively trying to overthrow Thaksin, and implicated a relative of Queen Sirikit in the criminal sale of Shin Corp to the Singaporeans:
Machinations from the Palace stung all the more, Pansak claimed, because Thaksin had consistently shown respect for the royal court and had defended the King’s interests. Thaksin had sought to protect the King’s reputation when an American author recently published a tell-all book about the royal family. More importantly, Thaksin had taken steps to promote and protect the assets of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB). Thaksin had substantial assets of his own with Siam Commercial Bank (SCB), in which the CPB was a major stakeholder — and an SCB figure who was also a relative of the Queen (NFI) had even represented Thaksin in negotiating the highly controversial sale of Shin Corp to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings.
The royalists, however, feared that Thaksin’s policies, which benefited and empowered the rural majority, would erode their own standing. The royalists were against democracy, he noted, dismissing the critique that Thaksin had consolidated power to an extreme degree…
Whatever Thaksin did or did not do, his enemies would continue coming after him; unconstrained by legal or rational justifications, these opponents would find ways to attack. Tragically, while the royalists and oligarchs were undermining Thaksin, the political landscape was bereft of credible alternative leaders. Given the King’s age, it was imperative for the Thai population to begin preparing psychologically for the King’s passing and for a transition to a system increasingly reliant on democratic structures rather than royal authority. The current crisis forestalled such preparation, however. “It’s all about Prem becoming Regent,” Pansak warned. [06BANGKOK5466]
Oddly, Prem’s official website information describes him as a “soldier, statesman and Regent of Thailand“. This must be some mistake, understandable given the general’s advanced age and unfamiliarity with the internet.
As King Bhumibol told America’s Look magazine in June 1967, he is a fundamentally democratic monarch:
I really am an elected king. If the people do not want me, they can throw me out, eh? Then I will be out of a job.
Pansak should have been well aware of this, instead of trying to claim that Bhumibol was in any way undermining Thai democracy with the help of his old ally Prem.
3. PREM TINSULANONDA
General Prem was rightly horrified by insinuations that he was trying to undermine Thaksin’s elected government. Boyce appears to have been shocked too, as he makes clear in his account of a meeting with the privy council head in July 2006:
I called on Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda on July 5. General Prem, one of the most highly respected leaders in Thailand, was the target of a lightly-veiled attack by Prime Minister Thaksin last week. Thaksin referred to an “individual with charisma,” who was “outside the Constitution,” trying to bring down the government and become Prime Minister himself. Thaksin’s comments were construed by many as an open declaration of war against Prem, all the more surprising (or foolhardy) given Prem’s stature and close relationship with the King. Meeting Prem at his home, I joked that he seemed to be exuding charisma. Prem immediately launched into a 50 minute discourse on “what makes Thaksin tick?”…
Prem said that, over Thaksin’s first five years as prime minister, he had not met much with Prem; Thaksin thought he knew everything already. For the past few months, however, Thaksin had sought out Prem more often. Prem said, “He sat right where you are,” made polite small talk and sought counsel on the political situation. Prem was therefore shocked to hear the accounts of Thaksin’s speech last week. At first, he couldn’t believe the reports, especially when he realized that Thaksin had not been speaking off the cuff, but from a prepared speech. Prem’s first thought was, “What does he think he’s doing?” (Comment: our question as well. End comment.) …
Prem observed that Thaksin was clearly gripped by delusions of grandeur and a belief that he somehow had the right to run the country:
Prem bemoaned the fact that Thaksin had stirred everything up again, after a period of calm around the King’s anniversary celebration. I noted that Thaksin didn’t seem to be able to keep himself from making these provocative statements. Prem remarked that from the outset of his time as Prime Minister, Thaksin had been personally unprepared for the fawning reception he gets, especially when he travels around the country. It had gone to his head, Prem said, and made him believe that “he’s number one.” But Thailand was not like America, Prem added. “We already have a number one.” Thaksin needed to learn that he was the manager of the shop, not the owner. The people upcountry liked Thaksin and voted for him, but they didn’t revere him. After seeing the adoring crowds on June 9, a million people in their yellow shirts who waited for hours in the heat just to catch a glimpse of their King, Thaksin should understand that he cannot rival the King for the people’s affection, Prem concluded.
Boyce noted approvingly that despite the general’s understandable outrage, Prem was wisely restraining himself from retaliating:
Comment: General Prem showed more disappointment than anger over Thaksin’s attack on him. He gave no sign of plotting a counter-attack, but his supporters (and many Thais, it seems) continue to be both puzzled and outraged; the belated statement by the government spokesman ostensibly clearing Prem of the charge has come too late to undo the damage from the PM’s remarks. End Comment. [06BANGKOK3997]
Later that month, Prem dressed up in his full cavalry officer’s uniform and used equine imagery to illustrate to cadets at the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy that their loyalty should be to King Bhumibol, not elected politicans:
Privy Council chairman Gen Prem Tinsulanonda yesterday likened the government to a jockey and soldiers to horses, saying the jockeys come and go, but the owner of the horses stays the same. In a special lecture to around 950 cadets at the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in Khao Cha-ngoke, Nakhon Nayok, Gen Prem said the soldiers belonged to His Majesty the King, not a government.
He returned to the same theme later in July in a speech filled with wisdom to naval cadets, as reported by Wassana Nanuam of the Bankok Post in an article reproduced on the general’s website, headlined “Prem slams ‘unethical leaders'”:
Unethical leaders should have no place in Thailand, Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda said yesterday.
During a special lecture given to 350 naval cadets and some high-ranking navy officers at the Naval Academy in Samut Prakan yesterday, Gen Prem said it is important for national leaders to have ethics and morals.
“Only good people have ethics and morals. Bad people don’t. People who work in public office or those who are commanders and leaders, in particular, must embrace ethics and morality otherwise things will collapse. There will be corruption, favouritism, nepotism and greed if leaders lack ethics and morals.
“Individuals who have no ethics and morals are bad people who are full of greed. They may want to live comfortably with a lot of money. But if they have acquired wealth through illegal or unethical means, they no longer deserve to be in this country,” said Gen Prem, a former prime minister. He also reminded the navy officers that they “belong to” His Majesty the King and the country, and not to the government. Their foremost loyalty should always lie with the country and the King. “In my lecture to army cadets two weeks ago, I told them about who owns the soldiers. This time, I have to make it clear again that we soldiers belong to the country and to the King. A government supervises soldiers in compliance with the policy declared to parliament only,” said Gen Prem, adding that he was referring to a government in general…
“Some social values are wrong. For example, people respect those who have money without caring whether they have acquired it through ethical means or not. We should not wai individuals who make money illegally. Samlor (tricycle) and taxi drivers are more respectable than those individuals,” he said.
Gen Prem urged the navy officers to follow the good examples of Adm Chumphon, Adm Prasert and Adm Prajet – professional soldiers who kept their distance from politics.
He also quoted US Gen Douglas MacArthur’s famous line, “Old soldiers never die,” to remind the officers that they should strive to be professional soldiers.
On September 19, 2006, a group of generals rolled their tanks into Bangkok and deposed Thaksin in a bloodless coup. The leaders of the putsch swiftly sought an audience with King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, and by coincidence Prem happened to be at the palace when they arrived. As Boyce noted:
It remains unclear whether Thailand’s King encouraged or provided approval in advance for the September 19 coup d’etat by the Council for Democratic Reform Under the Monarchy (CDRM). However, the CDRM is publicly linked to the monarchy to a greater extent than previous coup plotters, and the CDRM’s September 19 royal audience sent a clear public signal of Palace endorsement…
On the night of September 19, soon after the CDRM seized control of the media, word spread that CDRM leaders would have an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The audience took place at Chittralada Villa from 12:19 a.m. until 1:24 a.m. the same night, according to an Embassy contact at the Palace. The willingness of the King to receive the CDRM representatives so quickly sent a clear public signal of royal endorsement of the coup. [06BANGKOK5836]
Following the coup, Thaksin accused Prem several times of having been a key player in the plot to depose him. Prem assured U.S. diplomats that this was nonsense. In April 2009, with Thailand facing violent protests, he repeated this assurance in a meeting with Ambassador Eric G. John:
The Ambassador on April 2 called on Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda at Prem’s residence. Discussing the ongoing anti-government “redshirt” demonstrations at Government House, Prem remarked that former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was appearing each evening to address supporters via video link, was lying to the Thai public about the 2006 coup. Prem admitted to the Ambassador that he had met with Army Commander Sonthi Boonyaratglin prior to the coup, but Prem denied that he had backed the seizure of power, as Thaksin alleged. Prem asserted that he did not feel sympathetic toward either the redshirts or the PAD, which had used demonstrations to undermine Thaksin prior to the coup and then again after a pro-Thaksin government took power in early 2008. [09BANGKOK865]
Given Prem’s many years of apparently loyal service to King Bhumibol, and his deeply honourable refusal to have anything to do with the coup plot against Thaksin, it comes as a grave disappointment to find evidence in the cables that he has a criminal lack of respect for some members of the royal family, in particular Bhumibol’s admired son and heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. This was particularly painfully apparent in a January 2010 conversation with Eric John:
Regarding King Bhumibol’s health, Prem indicated that the King was exercising 30 minutes a day on a stationary bicycle at Siriraj Hospital and passing a medicine ball with a physical therapist to build up strength and regain weight. Prem acknowledged that he had not seen the King since the hospitalization, but that the Queen and Princess Sirindhorn saw the King daily. When Ambassador asked about the Crown Prince’s involvement, Prem repeated: the Queen and Sirindhorn visit him daily.
Prem acknowledged Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn probably maintained some sort of relationship with fugitive former PM Thaksin, “seeing him from time to time.” Prem, clearly no fan of either man, cautioned that Thaksin ran the risk of self-delusion if he thought that the Crown Prince would act as his friend/supporter in the future merely because of Thaksin’s monetary support; “he does not enjoy that sort of relationship.” When Ambassador asked where the Crown Prince was currently, in Thailand or Europe, Prem replied dismissively: “You know his social life, how he is.” (Note: a presumed reference to Vajiralongkorn’s preference to spend time based out of Munich with his main mistress, rather than in Thailand with his wife and son). [10BANGKOK192]
Article 112 of the Thai criminal code clearly states that the lèse majesté law covers the king, queen and the heir to the throne. Prem’s comments to a foreign ambassador constitute a serious crime.
4. ANAND PANYARACHUN / 5. SIDDHI SAVETSILA
The same cable from Eric John reveals anti-monarchy sentiments from two other Thai elder statesmen who had been previously believed to be loyal royalists – former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun and privy councillor Siddhi Savetsila. Both men, like Prem, appear to harbour contemptuous views about the heir to the throne.
Siddhi, a retired Air Chief Marshal, even voiced treasonous hopes that the crown prince might die, thus allowing the succession to pass to his sister, Crown Princess Sirindhorn:
ACM Siddhi… noted that the Crown Prince frequently slipped away from Thailand, and that information about his air hostess mistresses was widely available on websites; he lamented how his former aide, now Thai Ambassador to Germany, was forced to leave Berlin for Munich often to receive Vajiralongkorn. Siddhi raised Thaksin’s controversial November Times On-line interview, which Siddhi claimed cast the King in a bad light and attempted to praise the Crown Prince as broad-minded and educated abroad, hinting that Vajiralongkorn would be ready to welcome Thaksin back to Thailand once he became King.
Ambassador mentioned to Siddhi the Crown Prince’s more engaging approach in the early December King’s Birthday reception with Ambassadors, shaking each envoy’s hand and appearing more at ease than in the 2008 reception. Siddhi stated that succession would be a difficult transition time for Thailand. According to Palace Law, the Crown Prince would succeed his father, but added after a pause, almost hopefully: “if the Crown Prince were to die, anything could happen, and maybe Prathep (Sirindhorn) could succeed.”
Not content with smearing Vajiralongkorn, Siddhi went on to criticise Thailand’s minor royals as well, complaining that he had recently been inconvenienced by a revered royal motorcade:
ACM Siddhi expressed his personal concern about the declining image of the royal family in Thailand, noting that something as simple as excessive motorcade-related traffic jams caused by minor royals was an unnecessary but enduring irritant. Personal Private Secretary Arsa Sarasin had raised this with the King about eight years ago, according to Siddhi, and the King had agreed, authorizing Arsa to talk to royal family members and to set up new rules limiting entourages and occasions when traffic would be stopped. Nothing had changed; Siddhi noted that he had been caught up in traffic for 45 minutes the previous week returning for a meeting with the Chinese Ambassador, due to a royal motorcade. Stories that the Crown Prince now ordered second story windows closed as his motorcade passed achieved nothing but additional popular resentment, Siddhi added sorrowfully. [10BANGKOK192]
Anand’s comments were similarly seditious:
While asserting that the Crown Prince will become King, both Siddhi and Anand implied the country would be better off if other arrangements could be made. Siddhi expressed preference for Princess Sirindhorn; Anand suggested only the King would be in a position to change succession, and acknowledged a low likelihood of that happening. [10BANGKOK192]
6. SURAYUD CHULANONT
Surayud, a protégé of Prem’s who was also a general before joining the privy council advising King Bhumibol, was appointed prime minister by the junta that seized power in the 2006 coup. Like Prem, Surayud was totally oblivious about the coup until after it had happened, as he told Boyce in late September 2006:
I called on retired General and Privy Councilor Surayud Chulanont at the Privy Council Chambers on September 28. Surayud began by apologizing for telling me on the night of the coup that he did not know of anything going on that night. He maintains that when we spoke, he was on his way home from a palace religious ceremony – attended by Privy Council head Prem – for the Queen’s late mother. After returning home, he had turned on the TV and saw Thaksin’s attempt to declare emergency rule and fire Army Chief Sonthi. At that point, Prem called and instructed him to “come to the palace.”
Turning to the current state of affairs, Surayud explained that on the evening of September 27, General Sonthi Boonyaratklin had come to his residence and asked him to be the interim Prime Minister. Surayud responded that he didn’t really want the post, but if the King approved it, he obviously would take the position.
Boyce appeared to believe that Surayud was an ideal choice to run the government:
Surayud is a well-respected, non-partisan figure with a sterling track record as a professional military officer. After PM Chuan Leekpai selected him to lead the Army in 1998, Surayud undertook a meaningful series of military reforms that served to professionalize and de-politicize the uniformed ranks. During his tenure as Army Chief, Surayud also managed to push back against Burmese incursions into Thai territory, while ending Thai efforts to push Karen refugees over the border. The CDRM has obviously reached out to Surayud because he is one of the few individuals with the credentials and prestige to unite the country in this troubled period. Under the current circumstances, Surayud is arguably the best person to head the interim civilian government. He is trusted by the palace and the military, and enjoys widespread respect across a broad spectrum of Thai citizens because of his integrity and previous service. His appointment would be a very positive development for Thailand internally, as well as for Thai-U.S. relations, and we should welcome it if and when it is announced. [06BANGKOK5973]
Perhaps it had slipped Boyce’s mind that Surayud had a history of making disparaging remarks about both Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and Queen Sirikit in private. In 2005 he gave a very pessimistic assessment of the prince’s abilities in a conversation with the U.S. ambassador:
I asked Surayud about the heir to King Bhumhibol, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Surayud replied that he had tutored the Crown Prince some 20 years ago and surmised that “He’ll never measure up to the present monarch, but somehow the Thai people will make do.” [05BANGKOK1233]
In November 2004, Sirikit gave a stirring speech about violence by Muslim separatist insurgents in the south of Thailand, in which she vowed to learn to shoot to help defend her fellow Buddhists. The speech was widely praised in Thailand’s media. But unaccountably, Surayud later told Boyce that her comments had been unhelpful, and even went as far as suggesting a rift between Sirikit and Bhumibol over the issue:
Commenting on HM Queen Sirikit’s speech in November 2004 where she spoke about the plight of Buddhist villagers in the South, Surayud said that he had suggested to the Queen before the speech not to go into too much detail about the South. I told Surayud that the Queen’s remarks seemed to reflect general views of most Thai people about Thai Muslims in the South. Surayud agreed, adding that her comments had not been helpful. Furthermore, Surayud surmised that the King’s silence on matters in the South in his December 5 birthday speech was one result of the Queen’s remarks. The King had different views on the South than did the Queen, but was not about to make that publicly evident. [05BANGKOK1233]
In another conversation the same year, Surayud was equally condescending about Sirikit’s grasp of what was going on in southern Thailand:
On November 10, Privy Counselor Surayud… briefed the Ambassador and DAS John on the situation in the South. Surayad had returned the day before from six weeks with Queen Sirikit in Narathiwat. He suggested that, although some progress was being made in reaching out to Muslim clerics and elders in the troubled region, Muslim youths continued to be disaffected and posed ripe targets for agitators. Surayud admitted that the Queen had shown a lack of understanding about the South in the past. Now, however, after spending more time interacting with residents in the region, he believes she now understands that the violence is being pushed by only a fringe of Muslim society. Surayud said that the Queen was in the south to promote agricultural and local handicraft projects and that, during the course of these promotions, she had many opportunities to meet with local residents, especially housewives, to hear their concerns. In conversations with southern leaders and ordinary citizens, the Queen and Surayud urged prominent clerics and political figures to lead by example, to speak out against violence, and to organize local self-defense groups in cooperation with the security forces. [05BANGKOK7091]
Queen Sirikit has long taken a special interest in southern Thailand and has spent long periods based there in her Narathiwat palace. It is unthinkable that she would lack a deep understanding of the situation in the area, and Surayud’s critical comments are a clear case of lèse majesté.
7. SUTHEP THAUGSUBAN
In December 2008, following months of violent protests by Yellow Shirt mobs that culminated in a damaging siege of Bangkok’s airports, and a judicial intervention dissolving the ruling pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party, the Democrat Party led by Abhisit Vejjajiva took power at the helm of a coalition government. Thaksin’s supporters claimed that what had happened was deeply undemocratic, perhaps not understanding that Abhisit’s government had secured power through entirely legitimate means in Thailand’s parliamentary system.
The Democrats have a long tradition of loyalty to the palace and their government had the support of Thailand’s royalists. Unknown to the monarchists, however, Democrat Party Secretary General Suthep Thaugsuban clearly lacked loyalty to the throne.
In a meeting with U.S. diplomats in April 2007, Suthep made the treasonous claim that Bhumibol and Sirikit had disagreed over the 2006 coup:
Suthep… said King Bhumibol had not favored the 2006 coup. Suthep claimed that, on the night of the coup, the King had resisted meeting with the Generals who overthrew Thaksin. In the end, the King gave in to the entreaties of Queen Sirikit, but he publicly signaled her role in the coup by approving the release of a photograph of that audience which showed the King, casually dressed, in profile, while the Queen faced the camera. [07BANGKOK2304]
Worse – far worse – was to come. In 2009, Suthep made the astonishing claim that King Bhumibol was mentally ill, reinforcing his point with a shockingly disrespectful gesture:
DPM Suthep confirmed to then-Charge on October 1 … that King Bhumibol exhibits classic symptoms of depression. Tapping his forehead, Suthep claimed that the King’s physical health was okay, but that the really worry was his state of mind, depressed at the state of affairs in his Kingdom at the end of his life. [09BANGKOK2606]
Any further comment would be superfluous.
8. KASIT PIROMYA
Suthep’s colleague Kasit Piromya, foreign minister in Abhisit’s administration, is another Democrat whose claims to be a loyal royalist are belied by comments he has made. In April 2o10, in a speech at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Kasit made the seditious suggestion that Thais should openly discuss reform of the monarchy:
We should be brave enough to go through all of this and even talk about the taboo subject of monarchy… I think we have to talk about the institution of the monarchy, how would it have to reform itself to the modern globalized world.
As the New York Times reported, the government scrambled to distance itself from Kasit’s remarks.
In 2009, Kasit gave the impression in remarks to Ambassador Eric G. John that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn was not yet fulfilling his royal duties as well as could be expected:
Kasit … suggested that the Crown Prince is far shrewder than most people believed. The Crown Prince clearly understood the difficulties his personal habits (love of flying and women) presented, and that he would need to change prior to assuming the throne. While the Crown Prince had promised several years ago to stop flying, he had not yet done so. Kasit remained confident, however, that the Crown Prince could successfully transition from one role to another… [09BANGKOK888]
Suggesting that the prince is not perfect, and has some troublesome personal habits, is another egregious breach of Thailand’s lèse majesté legislation.
9. SURIYASAI KATASILA
Amid Thailand’s political upheavals, one group at least has proven reliably royalist – the right-wing nationalist People’s Alliance for Democracy – also known as the Yellow Shirts for their fondness for wearing the king’s colour – and the related New Politics Party. Or so it had seemed. Yet the cables contain disturbing comments by a key Yellow Shirt leader, Suriyasai Katasila.
Suriyasai was praised in 2006 by the staunchly royalist Nation newspaper as a “man of the future“:
A spokesman of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), Suriyasai has been standing in the front line, challenging and fighting the Thaksin regime in the name of people power.
Only in his early 30s and with enormous energy and an endless fighting spirit, he is sharp and knows how to think strategically to achieve political objectives…
Keep an eye on the future of this young man, who will be a force in Thai politics for decades to come.
This makes it particularly heinous to discover Suriyasai making criminal comments about Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn in 2009:
For a party that was publicly built at least in part on a foundation of loyalty to the institution of the monarchy, the NPP privately is surprisingly schizophrenic on the succession question. Suriyasai revealed to us that the PAD/NPP was split between those who unreservedly supported the institution, and those who merely supported the King personally. He counted himself in the latter group, indicating a lack of support for the presumed heir to the throne: Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. This begs the obvious question of what would happen to the party if – as expected – the Crown Prince inherited the keys to the Kingdom? Suriyasai told us that he personally believed the monarchy needed to be reformed, and even went so far as to characterize some elements of the royalist movement as “dangerous,” perhaps even more so than the red-shirt movement backing Thaksin. [09BANGKOK2855]
– – – – –
The above names, sadly, are only the tip of the iceberg. The leaked U.S. cables contain evidence of several other Thai officials showing less than total respect for the royal family.
However, to avoid overwhelming the Thai police and Chalerm’s war room, it would seem sensible to focus first on the nine criminals named above in this article. Once they have been brought to justice, I would be delighted to share details of other miscreants I have identified from the cables.
Prime Minister Yingluck and Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm: Over to you. Go get ’em.