Thailand: Drop Lèse Majesté Charges against Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Academics, Intellectuals and Members of Parliament from around the World Call for Charges against Giles Ji Ungpakorn to be Dropped

Academics from U.K, Canada, France, South Africa, Ireland, Australia, South Korea, Greece and the U.S.A., including those from Oxford University and SOAS London University, have signed an open letter calling for charges of lèse majesté, made against Giles Ji Ungpakorn, to be dropped.  Among those signing are also famous writers such as Susan George and China Miéville.  The list also includes members of parliament from New Zealand and Britain.

A separate petition, in Thai and English, for the scrapping of all lèse majesté cases is being circulated and discussions are taking place among communities and  citizens’ groups throughout Thailand.

We wish to express our deep concern at the decision of the Thai Police Special Branch to prosecute Associate Professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn, of the Political Science Faculty at Chulalongkorn University, with lèse majesté — that is, with insulting King Bhumibol.  Mr Ungpakorn is a well-known commentator on Thai politics, widely quoted in the international media.  The charge arises from his book A Coup for the Rich, published in 2007.  In that book he criticized the coup of 19 September 2006, in which the military seized political power in Thailand.  Mr Ungpakorn argued that the army, along with the rest of the Thai establishment, used the monarchy to legitimize its political interventions.  This is the kind of analysis that political scientists make as a matter of course, but various bookshops withdrew A Coup for the Rich from circulation, forcing Mr Ungpakorn to make it available on the Internet.

Now his academic freedom and basic citizenship rights have come under much more serious attack with this prosecution.  Lèse majesté has fallen into disuse in most of the world as a relic of the pre-democratic past.  Thailand is an exception.  The Economist   commented on 14 August 2008: ‘The king said in 2005 that he could be criticised and was not afraid of this.  But those posing as his majesty’s protectors conveniently forget his words.  So, despite their democratic institutions, Thais are not free to debate matters regarding their head of state, including appropriate limits on criticizing him.’

Lèse majesté carries a maximum sentence of 15 years, and MPs from the government party headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva, which came to office thanks to the connivance of the army, want to increase this to 25 years.  The prosecution of Mr Ungpakorn therefore represents the most fundamental attack on freedom of speech.  We demand that the charges against him are unconditionally withdrawn.

Dr. Geoff Abbott, Newcastle University

Professor Gilbert Achcar, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

Dr Talat Ahmed, Goldsmiths, University of London

Dr Kieran Allen, University Collhe Dublin

Dr Sam Ashman, University of East London

Dr Miryam Aouragh, University of Oxford/University of Amsterdam

Hans Baer, University of Melbourne

Professor Abigail Bakan, Queen’s University, Canada

Chris Bambery, Editor, Socialist Worker

Colin Barker, Manchester Metropolitan University (Emeritus)

Dr John Baxter, Open University

Dr Tom Behan, University of Kent

Professor Jacques Bidet, University of Paris 10 – Nanterre (Emeritus)

Dr Sue Blackwell, University of Birmingham

Professor Luc Boltanski, École des hautes études en sciences sociales 

Professor Patrick Bond, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Helen Bowman, Manchester Metropolitan University

Pat Brady, Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards

Professor Dennis Brutus, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Professor Alex Callinicos, King’s College London

Dr David Camfield, University of Manitoba

Mark Campbell, London Metropolitan University, National Executive Committee, Universities and College Union

Dr Steve Cannon, University of Sunderland

Joe Carolan, Editor, Socialist Aotearoa, New Zealand

Agger Carsten, Denmark

Jim Casey, Vice President, Fire Brigade Employees Union, New South Wales

Dr. John Charlton

Professor Simon Clarke, University of Warwick

Paul Coates, President, University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association

Dr Alejandro Colas, Birkbeck College University of London

Petros Constantinou,,Campaign GENOA 2001 Greece

Adrian Cousins, UNITE rep, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

James Cussens, University of York

Bernice Daly, National Executive Committee, Universities and College Union

Neil Davidson, University of Strathclyde

Dr Jonathan Davies, University of Warwick

Dr Andy Durgan, Barcelona University

James Eaden, Chesterfield College, National Executive Committee, Universities and College Union

Manfred Ecker, Vienna

Professor James Fairhead, University of Sussex

Dr Sue Ferguson, Wilfrid Laurier University

John Fernandes

George Galloway MP

Panos Garganas, National Technical University of Athens

Susan George

Lindsey German, Convenor, Stop the War Coalition (pc)

Professor Mike Gonzalez, University of Glasgow (Emeritus)

Dr Peter Goodwin, University of Westminster

Sarah Gregson, Vice President Academic, National Tertiary Education Union, University of New South Wales

Dr Phil Griffiths, University of Southern Queensland

Sylvia Hale, Member of Parliament, New South Wales

Professor Nigel Harris, University College London (Emeritus)

Professor Barbara Harriss-White, Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford

Marion Hersh, University of Glasgow

Tom Hickey, University of Brighton, National Executive Committee, Universities and College Union

Brian Ingham, Richmond-upon-Thames College, National Executive Committee, Universities and College Union

Feyzi Ismail, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

Nick James, University of Leicester and UCU NEC

Professor Seongjin Jeong, Gyeongsang National University, South Korea

John Kaye, Member of Parliament, New South Wales

Paul Kellogg, Trent University, Peterborough, Canada

Dr Anna Laerke, Open University

Jens Laerke, United Nations, Nairobi

Councillor Michael Lavalette, Liverpool Hope University

Maeve Landman, National Executive Committee, Universities and College UnionMelanie 69. Lazarow, Secretary, National Tertiary Education Union, University of Melbourne

Dr Elizabeth Lawrence, National Executive Committee, Universities and College Union

Professor Michael Lebowitz, San Francisco University

Craig Lewis, National Executive Committee, Universities and College Union

Dr Nancy Lindisfarne, School of Oriental and African Studies, London (Emeritus)

Professor Domenico Losurdo, University of Urbino

Dr Steve Ludlam, University of Sheffield

Alan Maass,, USA

Professor David McNally, York University, Toronto

Judith McVey, Coursework Education Officer, University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association

Georges Menahem, University of Paris-13/Dalhousie University, Canada

China Miéville

Laura Miles, Bradford College

Dr Sally Mitchison, Consultant Psychiatrist

Professor Colin Mooers, Ryerson University

Dr Carlo Morelli, University of Dundee

Dr Tim Morris

Pablo Mukherjee, University of Warwick

Antony Nanson, Bath Spa University

Dr Jonathan Neale, Bath Spa University

Jakob Nerup, National Board, Red-Green Alliance, Canada

Professor Alan Norrie, King’s College London

Allison O’Toole, Joint Queer Officer, University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association

Dr George Paizis, University College London

Jamie Parker, Mayor of Leichhardt, New South Wales

Dr John Parrington, Worcester College Oxford

Dr Diana Paton, University of Newcastle

David Pejoski, Joint Queer Officer, University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association

Professor Malcolm Povey, University of Leeds, National Executive Committee, Universities and College Union

Dr Nat Queen, University of Birmingham

Maloti Ray, Research officer, University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association

Lee Rhiannon, Member of Parliament, New South Wales

Dr. Elaheh Rostami-Povey, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

Professor Alfredo Saad Filho, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

Dr Alison Sealey, University of Birmingham

Dr Alan Sears, Ryerson University, Toronto

Dr Claude Serfat, Université de Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines

Anwar Shah, International Student Officer, University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association

Yiannis Sifakakis, Stop the War Coalition Greece

Sasha Simic, USDAW Shop Steward, Central Books (pc)

Professor Beverley Skeggs, Goldsmiths, University of London

Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM)

Professor Colin Sparks, University of Westminster

Maria Styllou, editor, /Socialism from Below/ (Greece)

Dr. Viren Swami, University of Westminster

J.G. Taylor, Leeds Metropolitan University

Jennifer Toomey, University of Newcastle

Dr Alberto Toscano, Goldsmiths, University of London

Charles-André Udry, Editions Page deux, Switzerland

Universities and College Union, Branch Committee, University of Dundee

Turkan Uzun, Antikapitalist, Turkey

Professor Kees van der Pijl, University of Sussex

Vegard Velle, member of national executive committee, Red Party, Norway

Sean Vernell, City & Islington College, National Executive Committee, Universities and College Union

Christine Vié, Manchester Metropolitan University

Dr. Max Wallis, Cardiff University

Dr Vron Ware, Open University

Tony Williams, Activities Officer, University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association

Dr Jim Wolfreys, King’s College London

David Streckfuss, Khon Kaen University THAILAND

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Details of Lese Majeste Charges against Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Today, the police informed me that I have been charged with lese majeste because of 8 paragraphs in Chapter 1 of my book A Coup for the Rich.  The paragraphs are listed below.

According to the police charge sheet, the charges arise from the fact that the Director of Chulalongkorn University bookshop decided to inform Special Branch that my book “insulted the Monarchy”.  The bookshop is managed by the academic management of the university.  So much for academic freedom!

Paragraphs deemed to have “insulted the Monarchy”:

  1. The major forces behind the 19th September coup were anti-democratic groups in the military and civilian elite, disgruntled business leaders and neo-liberal intellectuals and politicians.  The coup was also supported by the Monarchy.  What all these groups have in common is contempt and hatred for the poor.  For them, “too much democracy” gives “too much” power to the poor electorate and encourages governments to “over-spend” on welfare.  For them, Thailand is divided between the “enlightened middle-classes who understand democracy” and the “ignorant rural and urban poor”.  In fact, the reverse is the case.  It is the poor who understand and are committed to democracy while the so-called middle classes are determined to hang on to their privileges by any means possible.
  2. The junta claimed that they had appointed a “civilian” Prime Minister.  Commentators rushed to suck up to the new Prime Minister, General Surayud, by saying that he was a “good and moral man”.  In fact, Surayud, while he was serving in the armed forces in 1992, was partly responsible for the blood bath against unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators .  He personally led a group of 16 soldiers into the Royal Hotel which was a temporary field hospital.  Here, his soldiers beat and kicked people.  News reports from the BBC and CNN at the time show soldiers walking on top of those who were made to lie on the floor.  Three months after the 2006 coup, on the 4th December, the King praised Prime Minister Surayud in his annual birthday speech.
  3. The members of the military appointed parliament received monthly salaries and benefits of almost 140,000 baht while workers on the minimum wage receive under 5000 baht per month and many poor farmers in villages live on even less.  These parliamentarians often drew on multiple salaries.  The government claimed to be following the King’s philosophy of “Sufficiency” and the importance of not being greedy.  Apparently everyone must be content with their own level of Sufficiency, but as Orwell might have put it, some are more “Sufficient” than others.  For the Palace, “Sufficiency” means owning a string of palaces and large capitalist conglomerates like the Siam Commercial Bank.  For the military junta it means receiving multiple fat cat salaries and for a poor farmer it means scratching a living without modern investment in agriculture.  The Finance Minister explained that Sufficiency Economics meant “not too much and not too little”: in other words, getting it just right.  No wonder Paul Handley described Sufficiency Economics as “pseudo-economics”!  In addition to this, the junta closed the Taksin government’s Poverty Reduction Centre, transferring it to the office of the Internal Security Operations Command and transforming it into a rural development agency using Sufficiency Economics.
  4. It should not be taken for granted that the anti-Taksin military-bureaucratic network is a network led by or under the control of the Monarchy, despite any Royal connections that it might have.  Paul Handley argues that the Monarchy is all powerful in Thai society and that its aim is to be a just (Thammaracha) and Absolute Monarch.  For Handley, Taksin was challenging the Monarchy and seeking to establish himself as “president”.  There is little evidence to support the suggestion that Taksin is a republican.  There is also ample evidence in Handley’s own book that there are limitations to the Monarchy’s power.  Never the less, Handley’s suggestion that the 19th September coup was a Royal Coup, reflects a substantial body of opinion in Thai society.
  5. The Monarchy over the last 150 years has shown itself to be remarkably adaptable to all circumstances and able to gain in stature by making alliances with all sorts of groups, whether they be military dictatorships or elected governments.  The Monarchy may have made mild criticisms of the Taksin government, but this did not stop the Siam Commercial Bank, which is the Royal bank, from providing funds for the sale of Taksin’s Shin Corporation to Temasek holdings.  Nor should it be assumed that Taksin and Thai Rak Thai were somehow “anti-Royalist”.  For over 300 years the capitalist classes in many countries have learnt that conservative Constitutional Monarchies help protect the status quo under capitalism and hence their class interests.  However, it is also clear that the Thai King is more comfortable with military dictatorships than with elected governments.  This explains why the Monarchy backed the 19 September coup.
  6. In April 2006 the present Thai Monarch stated on the issue of the use of Section 7 that: “I wish to reaffirm that section 7 does not mean giving unlimited power to the Monarch to do as he wishes. . .  Section 7 does not state that the Monarch can make decisions on everything . . . if that was done people would say that the Monarch had exceeded his duties.  I have never asked for this nor exceeded my duties.  If this was done it would not be Democracy.”  However, by September and certainly by December, the King publicly supported the coup.
  7. For this reason there is a very important question to ask about the 19th September 2006 coup.  Did the Thai Head of State try to defend Democracy from the military coup which destroyed the 1997 Constitution on the 19th September?  Was the Head of State forced to support the military junta?  Did he willingly support those who staged the coup?  Did he even plan it himself, as some believe?  These are important questions because the military junta who staged the coup and destroyed Democracy have constantly claimed legitimacy from the Head of State.  Starting in the early days of the coup they showed pictures of the Monarchy on TV, they tied yellow Royalist ribbons on their guns and uniforms and asked the Head of State to send his representative to open their military appointed parliament.  Later in his annual birthday speech in December, the King praised the military Prime Minister.  We need the truth in order to have transparency and in order that Civil Society can make all public institutions accountable.  What we must never forget is that any institution or organisation which refuses to build transparency can only have conflicts of interest which it wishes to hide.
  8. In the early part of his reign the Monarch was young and unprepared for the job.  He only became King because of an accident which happened to his elder brother.  More than that, the Thai government at the time was headed by General Pibun who was an anti-Royalist.  Therefore the Monarchy faced many problems in performing its duties as Head of State.  This helps perhaps to explain why the Monarchy supported the military dictatorship of Field Marshall Sarit.  It is Sarit who was partly responsible for promoting and increasing respect for the Monarchy.  But many years have passed.  The status and experience of the Thai Head of State have changed.  The Monarch has much political experience, more than any politician, due to the length of time on the Throne.  Therefore the Monarch today exhibits the confidence of one who has now gained much experience.  For example, he chastised elected governments, like that of Prime Minister Taksin.  The important question for today therefore is: if the Monarch can chastise the Taksin government over the human rights abuses in the War on Drugs, why cannot the Monarch chastise the military for staging a coup and abusing all democratic rights?

Reading through these paragraphs it is clear that this lese majeste charge is really about preventing any discussion about the relationship between the military junta and the Monarchy.  This is in order to protect the military’s sole claim to legitimacy: that it acted in the interests of the Monarchy.

Associate Professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Faculty of Political Science
Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
20 Jan 2009

“Details of Lese Majeste Charges against Giles Ji Ungpakorn” was published on Ungpakorn’s blog on 20 January 2009.