With the world’s longest-reigning monarch approaching the 60th anniversary of his ascension to the throne, we expected him to be a little less sensitive to criticism by now.
Although he is a constitutional monarch — in a position that was considered prime figurehead material before his tenure began — we are told that Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej has long been considered almost godlike by many of his subjects, consistently demonstrating an ability to mediate the often violent conflicts between military forces and pro-democracy movements. But in blocking Yale University Press Web material on “The King Never Smiles,” Paul Handley’s forthcoming critical biography of the monarch, Thailand’s communications ministry has only succeeded in casting more doubt on the king’s typically accepted image as a beneficent democrat.
In some spheres of intellectual debate, Thailand seems relatively progressive. Just last week, the government-funded Mahidol University in Thailand hosted an international nursing conference jointly organized with the Yale School of Nursing and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We laud the participating universities for their focus on attracting a wide range of opinions regarding complementary and alternative therapies for chronic illness; this suggests a willingness to accept and learn from constructive criticism in the fields of caregiving and medical treatment.
But when it comes to historical and political analysis, Thailand offers a far smaller academic playing field. Since more than a few criticisms of our own president have appeared in this space, we are fundamentally uncomfortable with the Thai law that delivers prison sentences of up to 15 years to anyone who speaks against the monarchy. Though the crime is only rarely prosecuted these days, we find it much more difficult to believe that the king has democracy’s best interests at heart as long as he continues to limit free speech that happens to offend him.
We find it telling that the Royal Thai Police Web site has banned more than 32,000 other sites since the government began censoring the Web less than four years ago. Granted, an overwhelming majority of the verboten Web material was reportedly blocked for the same reasons that U.S. government computers in a public school or office might do so — more than 76 percent of the sites in question were declared pornographic or related to either prostitution or the sale of sex equipment. But another 11 percent of the blocked Web sites, roughly 3,600, are designated simply as a “Threat to National Security,” which leads us to believe that many of them paint unflattering pictures of the Thai government and its head. This is an astonishing amount of censorship from a country with strong beliefs in free-enterprise economics and pro-investment policies.
Under the current strictures, we are hardly surprised that all traces of Handley’s book — which depicts the king as “deeply political, autocratic, and even brutal,” according to promotional material from Yale Press — have been restricted by the Thai Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. But by limiting free political expression in so blatant a fashion, the Thai government seems to have proven Handley’s point well before the book hits shelves.