HONG KONG: Back in December 2005, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand took the occasion of his birthday message to admonish then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for his intolerance of criticism.
Thaksin was hounding some critics with libel actions and had earlier used allegations of lèse-majesté - offending the dignity of the monarch - against other critics who had claimed that king and prime minister were at odds.
No one, said the king, himself included, should be exempt from criticism, which could be useful.
Thaksin got the message and withdrew his libel actions. Unfortunately for the subsequent evolution of Thai political institutions, the king's words appear to have fallen on deaf ears, most specifically of those who most claim to revere the monarch.
Lèse-majesté has become another weapon of the junta, known as the Council for National Security, which seized power in September and appointed a new government.
The junta attempted to use a slew of lèse-majesté charges against Thaksin himself. However, in a sign of dissension within the government, the prosecutor announced on April 10 that the charges would be dropped because, though Thaksin's comments were "inappropriate," there was no malicious intent.
Nonetheless the very fact that they were brought illustrates how lèse-majesté laws can be used to try to silence political opponents.
There is, of course, a difference between reasoned criticism of the king and crude insults that offend many Thais, who see the monarch as a symbol of the nation. It may be more shocking than surprising that a Swiss resident of Thailand, Oliver Jufer, received the draconian sentence of 10 years in prison for drunkenly defacing a picture of the king, or that access to YouTube should be banned for carrying caricatures of the monarch. (According to wire reports, Jufer was pardoned and released on Tuesday.)
Nonetheless, there is an evident attempt by the stumbling junta to drum up nationalist sentiment by making a huge fuss about such minor issues. The supposedly liberal-minded opposition Democrat Party has allowed itself to be drawn into this controversy, demanding even stronger action against YouTube.
Newspapers that purport to be liberal and publish cartoons ridiculing other royals, not to mention the likes of George W. Bush, Kim Jong Il or Vladimir Putin, demand that the Thai head of state be treated differently. Now one of the king's closest advisers, the 86-year-old president of the Privy Council, General Prem Tinsulanonda, is also the focus of just the kind of intolerance of criticism that the monarch had earlier condemned.
The junta is reportedly preparing to order the police to take action against pro-Thaksin anti-coup protesters who plan to gather 100,000 signatures calling for the removal of Prem on account of his alleged role in the coup. The junta argues that, because Prem was appointed by the king, calls for his ouster are a challenge to royal authority.
None of this bodes well for the content of the new constitution, the first draft of which is due imminently, or the return of a popularly elected government.
The king may, in the eyes of many Thais, be a semi-divine figure. It is true that he has sometimes been a stabilizing factor at times of political crisis. But there is no reason why Thais and foreigners alike should not also regard him as a player, albeit by remote control, in national politics. He himself has stated that he is not above criticism - also for the role of his close adviser Prem, and for his attitude to the overthrow of an elected government.
With King Bhumipol now in his 80th year, the future prestige of the monarchy depends not on lèse-majesté but on ensuring that the monarch is seen to be a unifier of a country deeply divided between pro-and anti-Thaksin forces.