Friday, March 2, 2012

Lèse Majesté and the Thai Inquisition

"Well, I didn't expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition," the mild-mannered Englishman grumbles at a woman's questioning--and then the door opens and in rush Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, and Terry Jones, wearing blood-red cardinal's robes and waxed mustaches and golden crosses. "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" Palin announces with ominous self-satisfaction, eyes bright beneath a broad-brimmed hat, as the Monty Python sketch continues, only to get caught up in the difficulties of enumerating the things one does expect from the Spanish Inquisition. ("Our chief weapon is surprise--surprise and fear. Fear and surprise. Our two weapons are fear and surprise. And ruthless efficiency. Our three weapons are fear and surprise and ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope. Our four--no! Amongst our weaponry are such elements as fear and--I'll come in again.") The joke, of course, is that the Spanish Inquisition as a byword for cruel tyranny looks absurd in a modern setting.

But it is no joke.  The Spanish Inquisition is far from being a medieval relic. The inquisitors haven’t vanished. They’ve just changed countries and one of their “weaponry.”  Now, instead of an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, it is an almost fanatical devotion to the Thai Monarchy.

Yes, the Inquisition is an institution currently thriving in Thailand with regards to lèse majesté. Its fanaticism, its implicit totalitarianism (with inquisitors investigating every crevice of its victims’ lives), and its sheer bureaucratic brutality makes it central to who the Thai royalists are and what they are currently doing. The number of prosecutions under the world's strictest lèse majesté laws has risen sharply, as have jail terms, since the 2006 military coup.

Earlier this week at the notorious Bangkok Criminal Court (where much of the Thai autos-da-fé are held) Thai political activist, Surachai Danwattananusorn, was initially handed a 15-year term after finding him guilty on three counts of publicly insulting the monarchy. The sentence was halved to seven-and-a-half years in prison because he pleaded guilty. According to Surachai's wife Pranee, he has health problems including high blood pressure, diabetes, blockage of blood vessels in the heart and inflammation of the prostate, so he wanted to confess in order to seek a royal pardon. 

Surachai Danwattananusorn

"He led the public to believe that the monarchy was the cause of Thailand's political conflict," the judge said. "This is considered an extreme offence, inciting hatred."

Of course, the judge is none other than Thai Grand Inquisitress Chanathip Muanpawong.  She is the same judge who last year convicted Grandpa SMS, Amphon Tangnopphakul to 20 years in prison for allegedly sending four text messages and Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul (Da Torpedo) to 15 years after a secret trial for alleged lèse majesté.

       Amphon Tangnopphakul                                   Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul    
Judge Chanathip is also presiding in the ongoing trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the Director of Thai news website Prachatai, for not removing third party comments criticizing the monarchy from her website quickly enough.  

Chiranuch Premchaiporn
The Grand Inquisitress Chanathip stated during that trial on 31 May, 2010:

“It is not necessary for the defendant to have many dates for witnesses. You do not have to worry. I can already make a verdict on this case based upon the information given by the public prosecutor.”

Chanathip and the other Thai judges have forebears in Torquemada and the men in the red hats of the Spanish Inquisition. They routinely deny bail to those who are charged with lese majeste. It is a form of torture in order to coerce a confession.  Torturers always do their work without regret, and out of necessity, certain that the existence of their country or their church or their king or their values depend on it. We know the cruelest of fanatics by their exceptionally clear consciences.

The rate of conviction among those charged with lèse majesté is 94% (according to Thai historian David Streckfuss).  The Thai inquisitors have no qualms about condemning poor and powerless people to long prison sentences as heretics because they dare to defy the orthodoxy of the political elite. 

Just like in sixteenth century Spain, there are not daily autos-da-fé in twenty-first century Thailand. But that should not alter our horror that they do happen and that they are so effectively institutionalized. Their purpose is to frighten and terrorize; the mark of their success is that they do not need to happen every day.

How will Thailand lose its inquisitional tendency? The truth seems to be that an actual democracy might help, but the idea of decency matters most. Unfortunately, decency is one thing lacking in Chanathip and the other hyper-royalist Thai judges in power. Like Torquemada, she will become infamous for her zealous campaign of lèse majesté and her name will become synonymous with the horror, bigotry, and cruel fanaticism that this Thai lèse majesté comprises.

Torquemada - do not beg him for mercy. Torquemada - do not ask him for forgiveness. Let's face it - you can't Torquemada anything!  The same goes with Chanathip Muanpawong.  I can envision her singing on the way to a Thai auto-da-fé

The Inquisition, what a show
The Inquisition, here we go
We know you're wishing
That we'd go away
But the Inquisition's here and it's here to stay!

You better change your point of views today
'Cause the Inquisition's here and it's here to stay!

Abolish Thai Lèse Majesté laws!  
Free Political Prisoners!

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