Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rama IX is watching you

The face of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (stage name Rama IX) will be familiar to anyone who's visited Thailand. Whether you stuck rigidly to the tourist trail or headed off the beaten track to explore the cities before realising your mistake and running back to the tourist trail, the patriarch's kind, bespectacled face keeps a constant vigil from billboards, overpasses and even inside homes. That's a bit weird... right?

When I had a Thai girlfriend, I broached the topic of the king's omnipresence and Thailand's dystopian lèse majesté laws, which punish any verbal or written trash talk of the royal family with between three and fifteen years' imprisonment, but she didn't see anything wrong with that. When she recalled incidents she'd heard about Thais and non-Thais being convicted for speaking ill of the king, she seemed to feel real hurt like someone had insulted a close member of her family. That's a bit weird... right?

Of course, this was the culture she'd been brought up in, so it was natural for her to see the king's portrait everywhere without it seeming comparable to looming statues of North Korean tyrants or something. And it might be completely harmless. But as someone who was brought up in a culture that values freedom of expression, where print and broadcast media aren't controlled by the government (sorry, conspiracy theorists) and where a comedian can freely explore the possibility of his queen's vagina being haunted with the blessing of the BBC, I was always slightly suspicious of Thailand's king. His portrait had started to feel like George Orwell's oppressive Big Brother, especially in favourite royal seaside escapes like Hua Hin that need to keep up appearances even more in case they pay a visit.

But now we're not together any more, I don't have to worry about hurting my ex's feelings and I'm finally free (in an emotional if not legal capacity) to dish the dirt on King Bhumibol...

What a nice man

Unfortunately, there isn't any really. He seems like a very pleasant old fellow who's done a lot of good things throughout his long life and mostly avoided controversy, which is especially commendable when you consider how bloody corrupt the country's political leaders have been during his reign. About the only damning thing I could find is that his name almost has the word 'bum' in it, making it a target for playground puns, but fortunately I'm above childish behaviour like that.

So if he's such a nice guy, what are they trying to hide? Why, when you try to access the king's Wikipedia entry in Thailand, are you presented with this?

For users in Thailand, try this instead

It certainly doesn't seem to be any fault of the king, who quite sweetly invited criticism of himself in a 2005 speech that amusingly (or horrifyingly, depending on your viewpoint) resulted in a fifteen-fold increase in lèse majesté convictions the following year as disgruntled citizens took him up on his offer, only to end up behind bars. That's what you get for trying to be fair.

At least there's a small glimmer of hope for the future of freedom of speech in Thailand with the recent news that the country rose from a depressing 153rd to slightly less dismal 137th place in the Press Freedom Index of 178 countries over the last two years. This means that coverage of political events in Thailand's media is now only slightly less reliable than that of Honduras (136th), with its assassinated journalists, and Brunei (125th), where the sultan makes the front page at least every other day to remind his subjects how amazing he is and anyone found guilty of reporting 'false news' that doesn't corroborate the government's true version of events can look forward to at least three years in prison. Something to aim for, Thailand.

Sorry, King Rama IX. You tried to be a man, but you're condemned to be a god.

Hua Hin

This seaside town a few hours down the coast was a more relaxing place to hang around between flight connections than Bangkok

...Though that's about all I have to say about it, hence the post you just read.
Look, donkeys

1 comment:

  1. I thought something must have happened when I saw this in my most popular posts.