Numerous critics of Thailand’s military regime charged with lèse majesté remain in exile in neighbouring Laos and Cambodia. Some of them continue their political activism, mainly through social media and YouTube channels. The case of Laos is significant, since there are deep ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious ties between northeast Thailand — the heartland of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts movement — and Laos. There is considerable sympathy for the Red Shirts in Laos.
Cambodia is a different case. There is no love lost between its strongman leader, Hun Sen, and Thailand’s military regime. In 2009 Hun Sen even appointed Thaksin as an economic advisor to his government. Hun Sen is skilled at whipping up Cambodian nationalism at any hint that Thailand is trying to interfere in the internal affairs of Cambodia.
It is likely that these remarks mainly reflect the desire of the Thai junta to publicly demonstrate its loyalty to the throne at a time of heightened royalism since the passing of former king Bhumibol, and as Thais awaited the formal accession to the throne of King Vajiralongkorn. Governments in recent years, whatever their political persuasion, have not missed an opportunity to publicly express their intentions to crackdown on critics of the monarchy.
Yet Thailand does have significant leverage over Laos, where it is a major investor. The regime may actually have the capacity to put more pressure on the Laos government to take a harder line with exiled critics of the monarchy residing there. The Laos government recently announced that it had closed down an ‘anti-monarchy radio station’ in response to requests by the Thai government. Some pro-Red YouTube channels produced by dissidents have also stopped broadcasting this month. And should Thailand’s military regime wish to pursue extraditions from neighbouring countries there is little the international community could do. The regime has shown on numerous occasions that it is relatively unperturbed by Western criticism.
But those who want to criticise the monarchy have plenty of other channels through which to do so. Thais in exile in the United States, the UK, France and Sweden, for example, keep up a steady stream of online political commentary and critique of the monarchy. Closing down critics in Laos will not affect this and there is no way that the junta could enforce extraditions from countries in the West.
Yet it is unlikely that the Thai government will expend much effort on this issue. The military regime is in a politically secure position. The succession to the throne of King Vajiralongkorn has proceeded as expected, albeit with a delay in the formal accession. The long mourning period in honour of the late king will be followed by the royal cremation, after which the coronation of Vajiralongkorn will take place. This means that for the next 1–2 years Thais will be subjected to a constant barrage of monarchist propaganda, enough to make it difficult for anti-regime activists to operate without being seen as being disloyal to the monarchy.
So at present anti-monarchy sentiment expressed in social media is a mild irritant, not a threat to the regime’s stability. Also, it is likely that after Vajiralongkorn’s imminent accession he may offer some royal pardons, as is the custom when a new king comes to the throne. Among those who receive pardons may be some who have been imprisoned on charges of lèse majesté. This will be portrayed by the regime as a demonstration of the generosity of the new king in the interests of reconciliation.
But the constant ratcheting up of measures to suppress criticism of the monarchy over the last decade — even in the last years of the enormously charismatic former king — does demonstrate that the authorities continue to believe there is a serious threat to the monarchy. The monarchy has been politicised by conservative political forces over the last decade of political conflict. Charges of lèse majesté have been their weapon of choice against the pro-Thaksin opposition.
Is the new king disposed to finding a way of depoliticising the monarchy in a way that might lead to a reduction in the use of the lèse majesté law? Nothing in his character suggests this might be the case. By contrast, his headstrong personality and ruthless way of dealing with those who incur his displeasure may excite even stronger criticism of the monarchy than was the case under the former king.
Indeed, just a few days after Vajiralongkorn formally ascended the throne a student activist was arrested and charged with lèse majesté for sharing a biography of the new king posted on Facebook by the BBC’s Thai language service containing details of the new king’s personal life.
It would seem, therefore, that the Thai authorities have no desire or incentive to limit the use of the lèse majesté law. The law is simply too politically useful to the monarchy and the military regime. Charges and prosecutions and threats of extradition will continue well into the future.
Dr Patrick Jory is a Senior Lecturer in Southeast Asian History at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland.