The recent jailing of a reporter in Thailand has once again illustrated that the country's monarchy is not only restricting press freedom and democracy, but actively endangering it.
The sentencing in Bangkok last Wednesday, January 23, of the journalist and activist Somyot Pruksakasemsuk to 11 years in prison is a slap in the face for democracy and freedom of the press. The judge in the case sided with the prosecution that the publication of two articles in 2009 by the journalist in the magazine "Voice of Thaksin" was a violation of Thailand's lese majeste law prohibiting the defamation of the monarchy.
For years, human rights groups have criticized the law, which was first introduced in 1908 and has since been used repeatedly to quash political debate and muzzle opponents.
"It would seem that the courts are increasingly becoming the supreme protectors of the monarchy at the expense of freedom of opinion," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Hidden power factor
The anti-defamation law is only the visible expression of a much more deep-rooted problem: the sweeping powers of the monarchy beyond the reach of any controls.
Officially, Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, a form of government that limits the powers of a ruler through a constitution. In Thailand, however, the limitations on royal powers are not very transparent, according to Jost Pachaly from the Heinrich-Boll-Foundation in Bangkok.
"The monarchy plays an important role behind the scenes. But the role is difficult to assess because nothing is reported about it and no one really knows anything specific," he said.
The diffuse powers of the monarchy contribute to the ongoing power struggles inside the country. Asia expert, Marco Bünte, of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), described Thailand's history as a "vicious circle of military coups, constitutions, crises and renewed military coups." The monarchy's involvement was considerable, he added.
Monarchist power grab
When the current king ascended the throne in 1946, the monarchy was in shambles, as explained by Paul M. Handley in his royal biography "The King Never Smiles." In the years that followed, however, the king and other members of the royal family won back control. "Bhumibol's ability to regain power and respect for the monarchy was no accident, but rather the fruit of a tireless, decisive and sometimes unscrupulous effort by the persevering prince."
The king's powers rest, above all, on his moral integrity and reputation. The image of a god-like Buddhist king - a Dharma Raja - was created with the help of enormous financial and propagandistic resources. Many Thais, even today, still view the king in this light. The trick, Handley noted, is "to exercise power without having any political power."
In Thailand, this ordinarily occurs through the secret Privy Council consisting of former members of the government and military who still maintain intimate ties to the corridors of power. Decisions by the council are made in secret and therefore circumvent any kind of democratic control.
In other words, according to Handley, the country has developed over the years into a sort of Buddhist-theocratic society under the motto "nation, religion and king."
In addition to the king's charisma and prestige on which his extensive powers rest, there is also his wealth, which could damage his Buddha-like image, despite the fact that it does not belong to him, but rather to the domain of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB). The CPB is a completely independent institution and is not part of the palace administration, the state, or a private company. It not only administers the real estate of the royal family but also owns shares in the country's largest corporations. And it pays no taxes. It is difficult to judge just how wealthy Thailand's monarchy is, but Forbes magazine estimates that it spends more than 370 million euros annually ($495 million).
Democracy not developing
The political and economic potency of the royal family is a problem because no one is allowed to report on it due to the anti-defamation law. "As a result, an important figure in Thailand's political and economic landscape operates in the dark," Pachaly said, naming one example:
For many years, so-called "red shirts" and "yellow shirts" have been fighting for power and influence in Thailand. The red shirts are supporters of a political movement that goes by the official name of United National Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). Its power base is mostly the poor, rural population. The yellow shirts are organized in the People's Alliance for Democracy. They are loyal to the king and come mostly from the urban middle class, the military and government bureaucracies.
In 2010, there was an outbreak of bloody protests, in which over 90 people died and 1,500 were injured over a period of three months. Afterward, a process of national reconciliation was launched, but it didn't get very far, Pachaly explained.
"Everybody talks about the reconciliation process, but there is no progress because both groups have just positioned themselves and are waiting to see what happens."
Observers expect a power vacuum if and when the king dies. It cannot be excluded, they say, that the country's political forces would then begin such a ferocious power struggle that Thailand would disintegrate into civil war.
The monarchy, they warn, is therefore not just a stumbling block to democracy so long as the king is alive, but it could also become a real threat to the stability of the country when the king dies.