'Anti-monarchist' branding simplistic
In the space of less than a week, the army chief, the defence minister and the police chief have publicly declared war on "the anti-monarchist movement" by vowing to put behind bars those making defamatory remarks about and criticising the institution. The approach is simply wrong, is undemocratic and won't solve the "problem".
Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha's warning, made on October 25, simplistically casts the situation in a dichotomy of black and white.
"There are only two groups of Thai people: the good and bad, normal people and outlaws," Prayuth was reported as saying.
Such a view bundled up a diverse group of Thais, ranging from those merely critical of the monarchy institution; those wanting to see reform of the institution to one more akin to the British, Japanese or Spanish monarchy; to those with stronger attitudes. For Prayuth, they're all bad and people who should be outlawed.
Also, the definition of "a good person", politically speaking, depends on the political ideology one holds. To diehard royalists, people mildly critical of the monarchy institution can be "bad people", while republicans may find royalists "feudalistic and bad". Now, those in power like Prayuth, will decide who is good and who is bad.
In the same speech, the hawkish new army chief also claimed that most people who posted anti-monarchist messages online and in public or semi-public areas such as toilets at petrol stations are immature.
"Let me ask: How old are you? I saw that many of you are quite young ... If you did it because you didn't know better, then please go ask your parents," Prayuth said. That is patronising and reduces these supposed "anti-monarchist" people to a bunch of juvenile pranksters.
Prayuth then warned that those "not involved" should remain that way and not get involved - as more persecution looms. But how can society turn a blind eye to issues related to freedom of political expression that has so much to do with a very important institution?
No sound explanation is provided beyond the all-too-convenient blaming of Thaksin Shinawatra and his red-shirt minions for all the current woes. But is that really all there is to it?
If there was any more to it, Prayuth and his boss, Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, and police chief Pol General Wichean Potephosree are not saying. Prawit vowed last week to crack down on online anti-monarchist messages made by military officers but failed to explain why some officers have allegedly become anti-monarchist.
Wichean told the Bangkok Post this week that offenders of the monarchy would face the full wrath of the police force, and yet he failed to take into account the increasing spate of arrests.
It should be acknowledged now that there are Thais who think differently towards many political matters as well as the institution. The difficult step now is for society to try to engage in a critical and frank discussion about the role of the monarchy and related issues in a changing world. Barriers to that include lese majeste and computer-crime laws, ultra-royalist zealots and simplistic warnings from generals.
One red shirt was arrested on Monday under lese majeste law. How many more will it take before Thais can honestly talk about the issue without fear of reprisal?
In a truly democratic society, we should face challenges with fairness, liberty, mutual acceptance and clear heads. Anything less won't solve any problem.