Talking about Thailand

“I’m delighted that we’re having this discussion at all, because in my view, the biggest problem in Thailand is that it’s illegal to talk about what’s happening,” Andrew MacGregor Marshall, journalist and author of the recently released book A Kingdom in Crisis, said, noting that “because of the Thai lèse majesté law, you can be jailed for three to 15 years for even saying many of the things that I’m going to say tonight.”

“When the king dies, there’ll be a profound change in Thailand and all bets are off,” said Marshall, whose book was just banned in Thailand and is no longer able to return to the country.

Throughout all of the coups and unrest, Thailand has still not engaged with the crucial unanswered question about its political realm, moderator Simon Baptist, chief economist and Asia Regional Director at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told the crowd.

“We’re now onto coup number 12 and the fundamental schism that has not been dealt with through any of these conflicts is this point about who controls Thailand — is it the royal family and the elite or is it the democratic control through the masses?” he said.

Junya ‘Lek’ Yimprasert, a Thai labour rights activist who was charged with lèse majesté after she wrote Why I don’t Love the King in 2010, said that in order to deal with the country’s crisis, “We need to identify who has benefitted from this chaos, this confusion, and who has lost.” Some may cast Thailand as a developing and economic success story, but the country has a massive income gap, she noted via Skype, and it’s time to address the issue.

For Eugénie Mérieau, a lecturer in political sciences and law at the University of Sciences-Po in Paris who recently published The Red-Shirts of Thailand, a major problem for the country is the “veil of ignorance” thanks to the “royalist fairy tale” that dominates historical scholarship.

But things are shifting, Mérieau said.

“It’s like a great awakening. . . . The Thais have embarked on a journey of historical deconstruction,” she said. “This online world has just really opened their eyes and they’ve just started to realise that they were living in a world of untold stories, or in a world of lies.”

Claudio Sopranzetti, a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford University All Souls College and the author of Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red-Shirt Movement, added that Thailand must now seriously engage with the unresolved question about who has the right to wage power — a “moral, charismatic figure” inside a palace or a mobilised, voting populace?

Along with the ever looming, if unspoken, issue of succession, Thailand has a number of other political events on the horizon. The military leaders have a deadline of next September for a new constitution and then there are promised elections by 2015, although they could be delayed to 2016. For the leaders and elites in Thailand, institutionalising power and being in a place to manage the succession will be key — but don’t count the people out, Marshall said.

“I think ordinary Thais will not accept this suspension of real democracy any longer, and we might see a real change in Thailand,” he said.

You can watch it online and listen again here: