Hate, speech, freedom and expression: The effigies of Khana Nitirat-Siam Voices

February 12, 2012

Lisa Gardner

Siam Voices: February 7, 2012


January 27, 2012. At the gates of Thammasat University, Thailand’s ultra-royalists arrive: with effigies in tow.

The ultra-royalists have stuffed, with twigs, a scarecrow: black pants and a sallow grey shirt with double pockets and small black buttons, tied taut at the cuffs. Ropes help to create a bulbous waist, a plump chest. Soon, a handwritten sign is hung from the neck. “Despicable!” it reads. “Insulting the Monarchy.” The image brings to bear those of China’s Cultural Revolution, where academics were once forced to wear degrading signs, before being beaten, often to death, by bloodthirsty crowds – the mark of Maoist fanaticism. Not a pretty sight.

This must have taken some time to produce: after all, the cardboard face of the effigy has been painted, and one can’t help but wonder at the production of incitements to violence. Just who among the ultra-royalists, for example, was tasked with the job of blushing those cardboard cheeks a deep, ultra-garish pink? How much time was spent, fashioning those lips a fine shade of fire-engine red? Perhaps it were that same person responsible for fashioning a thick black cross across the forehead, where X does mark the spot. (Photos of the event can be found here.) To the beat of ultra-nationalist fanfare, it combusts in a quick spray of fiery sparks: only to fill the surrounding streets with a clogging, toxic air.

Among those whose ‘faces’ were ‘painted’, those burned in effigy – Dr. Vorachet Pakeerat, an associate professor of public law at Thammasat University in Bangkok. A long-standing commentator on all manner of Thai affairs, no less its most controversial (the coup-related, and the constitutional), Prof. Vorachet proves no stranger to criticism. As noted here at Siam Voices, he also leads a reform-oriented team of law professors, the Khana Nitirat (or ‘Enlightened Jurists’).

In 2011, the Khana Nitirat made headlines in calling for a series of constitutional amendments. Some had sought amend the controversial Article 112 (lese-majeste) law. Last week, however, the group proposed a draft Constitution in which reform of “the monarchy, the judiciary, the military and political bodies (would be made) in a way that make them cohere with democracy and the rule of law.”

Among its most controversial suggestions, the Khana Nitirat propose that military coups be deemed constitutionally null and void, thus depriving the military of a means – short of a violent takeover – of assuring themselves legitimated political power. The group went further to suggest that “a new head of state”, presumably, a member of the royal family, be first required to swear an oath to protect the Thai Constitution.

Following the release of the proposed amendments, Thailand’s minority ultra-royalists would gather at Thammasat University. Not far from its prestigious law faculty; nor from its poignant memorial to the 1976 massacre of leftist students, who had themselves called for democratic reform. Prolific scholar and commentator Dr. Pavin Chachavalpongpun would report:

(The ultra-royalists have) demanded that the military… abduct members of the Nitirat, or throw  them from helicopters. They have called for names, addresses, phone numbers and maps of the  house locations of the Nitirat members to be published. They wanted (them)… burned alive in  front of their houses… suggested that (they) be beheaded… also said  they hoped that the  leader of the Nitirat, Dr. Worachet Pakeerut, be executed.

Certainly, the apparent ‘ridicule’ of clownish make-up on a proffered piece of cardboard proves a powerful – if somewhat denigrating – means of protest: a symbolic murder, however, proves another. (A full catalog of threats against the Nitirat can be viewed, courtesy of commentator Elizabeth Fitzgerald, here. Degrading references to dogs and executions abound.)

As per conventional definitions of hate crimes, hate speech ascribes individual acts of fanatical violence to that “justified” by a seemingly “greater cause”, such as that which ultra-royalists claim to represent – in this case, the Thai monarchy. ‘Hate speech’ gives name to that which does not respect others’ equality or dignity, no less their rights to safety, liberty, expression, and security, in the expression of alternative views.

Privy, as they are, to charges under the powerful, arbitrary ultra-royalism designated by Article 112, Thailand’s liberal academics, journalists and commentators yet face enormous personal risks in advocating that such laws be reformed. Hate speech such as those Damoclean-like incitements to murder and harm evoked by Thailand’s ultra-royalist minorities, in turn, reaffirm these risks. Most critically, however, such threats can only serve as a rallying cry to the growing international coalition in support of the law’s reform.

The Yingluck Administration has so far readily dismissed calls for reform of the lese-majeste law. With international attention gathering apace, Thailand’s liberal reform advocates, no less the Nitirat, are sure to (albeit unwillingly) further incite ultra-royalist fervor. Given the divisive, combustible political environment in which it operates, government silence risks lighting a damp fuse. With which, a more dramatic – no less violent outcome – is thereby assured.


Lisa Gardner is a freelance journalist based on Bangkok. Follow her on Twitter @leesebkk


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