In the latest in a long string of outrageous human rights and civil liberties violations perpetrated by the Thai government, political scientist Giles Ji Ungpakorn is facing prison for lese majeste -- insulting the king -- in a recent article about the 2006 Thai coup. You can read the offending paragraphs here and judge for yourselves.
He's not the only writer to face such charges -- an aspiring Australian novelist was just sentenced to three years for the same offense. But there's something particularly chilling about this case. Ji Ungpakorn is an academic of international stature. Chulalongkorn, the university where he is a lecturer, is (along with Thamassat) one of the top two universities in Thailand, his work is read and cited by academics across the globe, and he is the son of national hero Dr. Puey Ungpakorn.
There doesn't seem to be any element of "let's see if we can get away with this." Instead, it seems to be a clear and deliberate message to critics that prominence is no protection.
Usually the media's all over this kind of stuff. But I've seen very little about this case. In Thailand, it's explained by a call from the Minister of Justice to refrain from covering lese majeste cases. With the international media, it's a little bit more complicated.
Thailand gets very, very little bad press. 2,500 killed in Thaksin's drug war? Virtually nothing. Perhaps another 3,500 deaths (on both sides) in the Islamic insurgency in the Southern Provinces? same. There's maybe, maybe a little bit more coverage of abuses against Burmese migrants -- but again virtually nothing about Thailand's complicity in the political and economic conditions that force so many to flee Burma.
To give credit where it's due, the coverage of the most recent coup was more insightful -- and gave more attention to anti-democratic, royalist undertones -- than coverage in 2006. So perhaps a corner is being turned (on the other hand, it might just be because this time the airport got occupied, so foreign tourists were affected and needed some clarity about what the hell was going on).
But there's still a fundamental obstacle to critical press coverage, and it's one I can feel in my gut. For a journalist, Bangkok is the most livable city in Southeast Asia. Not only is it the essential transit hub for the region, it's also cosmopolitan, affordable, fun, and has a reliable telecommunications infrastructure. Not surprisingly, it's where international news agencies have their Southeast Asia bureaus (you know, all five of them...).
If you want to work in the region, it's pretty much the place to be. Even if you don't live in Thailand, your editor probably does. And in order to stay, there's one important rule: don't question the monarchy, or the privy council, or those who speak in its name.
It's hard to explain. Faced with something as simple as signing a petition in support of Ji Ungpakorn, I'll admit I hesitated. It seems like such a small thing, but winding up on a black list could ruin my career. And I'm not even a Thai specialist. So I can only imagine the pressure people who live and work there are feeling.
It's so easy to convince yourself that the work you're doing, the stories you can write, are too important to risk losing access to, and really, what good is a petition going to do? Add to that the imperative of your own financial survival, and it's easy to do nothing.
But I'd like to have some hope that Thailand can change. (I'm remembering here an interview I did with a Thai historian during the 2006 coup. My final question was whether he saw any hope for democracy in Thailand. "No" he replied, before beginning to cry in the studio.)
So it seems like people have to do something.
Find a petition here.
Or a sample letter here.