Reporting under lese majeste
Bangkok -- As Thailand readied to hold its first coronation in 70 years, rich in pageantry and rituals, I faced a tricky situation. As a journalist, my job was to write as much as possible about the new sovereign and his reign. But in Thailand, writing the wrong thing about the king can cost you your freedom.
The country has some of the strictest lese majeste laws in the world. Forget writing something critical -- that’s completely out of the question. Often reporters find themselves censured for writing something the royal family dislikes. Once, a person was jailed because he posted comments on Facebook that were deemed insulting to the late king’s dog.
I was warned of this before I ever set foot in the country. “There are things that you should never discuss,” a helpful Thai diplomat in Paris told me after I applied for my visa. “The royal family is sacred. You’ll have to censor yourself.”
A year later, I had to cover the coronation of the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn. Although he technically ascended to the throne in 2016 when his father died, he waited until 2019 to be officially coronated, as the country mourned his long-reigning and much-beloved father.
The festivities took place over three days, televised live by all the country’s channels. I dutifully wrote how the ceremony started at 10:09, the hour chosen by royal astrologers, how the new king, dressed in a white robe, received holy water, how his crown of gold and diamonds was placed on his head.
The next day I wrote about the huge royal procession during which the king was transported through the streets of Bangkok in a golden palanquin and carried by 16 soldiers who walked 75 steps per minute. I described the thousands of Thais who prostrated themselves before the king -- prostration before the king and his image is common in Thailand and was perhaps one of the things that shocked me most when I arrived -- lying on the hot asphalt. Dozens of them ended up fainting.
AFP had a team of four photographers and reporters following the procession. We were given strict rules to obey -- we had to dress in dark blue clothes, with a yellow tie, the color of the monarchy and black, polished shoes. We had to stay at least five meters from the monarch. We couldn’t film his back. We couldn’t use ladders, as it is forbidden to be higher than the king. We had to bow deeply when he passed.
The images of the new king were magnificent -- dressed in golden clothes, he was surrounded by a thousand soldiers. The Thais will probably never have an opportunity to see their king this close again. Up till now he had rarely appeared in public, contrary to his father who used to travel throughout the country.
I wrote all these things, but when I left the bureau at midnight, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated.
What did the Thais think of their new king? How did he intend to rule? The Thai royal family is among the richest royals in the world, but what exactly do they possess? Where will the new sovereign spend his time? (for years, he has spent most of it at the luxury residences he owns in Germany’s Bavaria region). So many questions remained unanswered.
Lese majeste laws are no joke in Thailand. Offenders can receive from three to fifteen years in prison.
Since the 2014 coup that brought the military to power here, some 100 people have been prosecuted under these laws. Although no new cases have been brought up over the past year, a dozen people remain behind bars for the offense.
A “cyberpatrol” of bureaucrats, as well as volunteers from royalist groups (the most notorious of them is called “The Garbage Collection Organization”), scour the internet for possible offenders.
In December 2018, two Thai dissidents who broadcast anti-royal programs from neighboring Laos to where they had fled, were found dead.
During the rare occasions that I dared pose questions about the royal family to people I interviewed, my queries were met with a polite smile that Thais use to get out from a delicate situation and hide their embarrassment.”
At times, the lese majeste laws meant that my work took a decidedly absurd turn.
A few days before he was officially coronated, Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has been thrice divorced, wed his fourth wife, a woman who had been his companion for a long time, a former air stewardess who was at one point named as his bodyguard. Naturally, there was great interest in learning more about Queen Suthida. But because she was now protected by the lese majeste laws, I couldn’t learn anything about her background. I couldn’t even get a confirmation of her age.
The Thai royal family has always cultivated an air of mystery around itself, one of the reasons it has kept its hold on power.
“Since I was a child, I have been conditioned not to doubt and to consider the monarchy as infallible,” a Thai journalist told me. “I have never spoken about it at the office. I have never even discussed it with my parents or my husband.”
Another colleague went a bit further. “There is no specific definition of this crime, which leaves the authorities wide latitude to interpret it as they see fit, and often to the detriment of their political foes,” she told me. “If we can’t talk about our history, the future of our society is threatened.”
But when I tried to bring up the new king’s personality and his escapades, which have been reported by foreign media, she shut down. “This is of no importance,” she told me. “This image is disappearing, in favor of an image of a sacred and powerful king.”
“And you? What purpose does it serve for you to constantly criticize your leaders?” she asked me. I had little choice but to answer with the same smile that the Thais use to get out of a delicate or embarrassing situation.