A few days ago someone posted an audio file on YouTube. The clip is cut from a call-in radio talk show called “Kid Dai Kid Dee” (English title: Talk News and Music) hosted by Mr. Veera Theeraphat. The caller asked the host about Nitirat (the group that’s been calling for amendment of Thailand’s controversial lese majeste law, or Article 112 of the Criminal Code). What the caller had to say is extremely revealing.
Following is my English translation of the original Thai-language exchange between the caller and the host.
Host: So, your third point.
Caller: Yeah, my third point. What’s that? That Nitirat. What’s the deal? They’ve come out and it’s, it’s , it’s… about that Article 112. The way I see it, it’s not right. It’ll, it’ll make people… It’ll cause something to happen, don’t you think? Look, what are they wanting to amend? Who are they really, these Nitirat? Who’s the ring leader?
Host: Aww! They’ve announced their names. They are law lecturers at Thammasat.
Caller: Oh right, they’re at Thammasat, right? If I ever see them, I’ll surely cut their heads off. If they’re going to fix this, this 112, about things like this. I’m human, I won’t put up with this. There’ll be surely that sort of thing. I, I, I…
Host: No. Do you, do you even know the content of Article 112? Do you know what Article 112 is? Do you know what it is?
Caller: That’s the thing!
Host: No, no. Do you even know what it is? Do you know what this Article 112 is all about? You want to behead people, do you know what it’s all about? Do you know that it’s in the Criminal Code?
Caller: Yes, but what they say, if, if… they say, if… those opinions that have come out, about this, this… won’t be wrong–
Host: Have you ever read it?
Caller: No, I haven’t. I admit I haven’t.
Host: And you’re giving your opinion and feelings without even knowing the facts.
Caller: Wait, wait, it’s not just me.
Host: Forget about other people. Let’s focus on just you because I’m not talking with other people, but–
Caller: Even, even government officials–
Host: –with you. No, no! Listen first. Start with the facts first. You don’t even know what it is all about! That’s why I asked if you know what this is. This Article 112 that people are talking about, what is it? Which section is it in the Criminal Code?
Caller: That’s right, but the news that’s come out–
Host: The news that’s come out–
Caller: –is mixed up–
Host: No, no, the news won’t be mixed up, if you knew, but you don’t! That’s why you’re mixed up!
Caller: Right. But because I don’t know, so–
Host: So, you go and find the information. It’s just like finding a rally video.
Caller: Yes, yes.
Host: If you want to know, then you go find the knowledge, and not sitting here…
Caller: But there’s news every day.
Host: Why are you sitting here imagining things? If you don’t have the facts, what basis do you have to form your feelings? You could go and behead the wrong people!… Alright, go and find knowledge first.
Caller: Yes, yes, yes, sir.
Host: I won’t do the job of explaining it. With things like this… it’s every man for himself in finding knowledge. But I’ll say, about Article 112 in the Criminal Code, you need to read it first, then find out what exactly they [Nitirat] are proposing to amend, where and why. But it has to start with the actual facts. This is not about amending the Constitution. Article 112 is not about the Constitution. Constitution amendment is another matter. Article 112 is in the Criminal Code. I will tell you that it has been amended once before in 1976.*
Note*: Thailand’s lese majeste law has been amended several times since its promulgation in 1908. The 1976 amendment was the most recent with increased penalty from up to seven years jail to a minimum of three years to up to 15 years jail. Thailand’s lese majeste law is considered the harshest in the world.
One hopes that the caller in the radio show is a rarity in today’s Thai society, but recent Thai history is not on one’s side. The brutality against leftist students at Thammasat in 1976 was committed by their fellow countrymen (see history of Thammasat University Massacre), and much hatred against the students was stoked by the deadly mixture of ignorance, blind faith, unfounded fear and disinformation. Those who brutally killed the young students in 1976 were told – and readily believed – that the students were “Vietnamese communists” who had ill intentions against Thai monarchy and not Thai students who simply protested against military dictatorship.
Now, a generation later, a group of seven law lecturers who call themselves “Nitirat” or “Law for the People,” who are proposing to put a stop to military dictatorship and make the most politically abused law of the land less prone to abuse, are being accused of having an evil plan to topple the monarchy, being lackeys of Thaksin, being Red, or simply being suspected of harboring some mysteriously ill intentions.
Nitirat has a website in Thai, with detailed statements about their ideas and proposals, as well as their articles, interviews and documents. A number of seminars, with packed audience, have been organized, reported, commented on on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and videos posted on YouTube, etc. Still most Thais outside a small circle of the intelligentsia and political enthusiasts don’t know – and don’t seem to want to know – what exactly Nitirat is proposing. Lack of knowledge doesn’t seem to dampen their zeal to condemn them.
Only a week before that, a group that called themselves “Thais with Patriotic Heart” gathered at the entrance of Thammasat University and burned an effigy of Worachet Pakeerat, the most prominent Nitirat member.
Why did these “Thais with Patriotic Heart” burn Worachet’s effigy? How much do they know about Nitirat and their proposals? We don’t know for sure. Perhaps even they themselves don’t know for sure. But that didn’t stop them having and acting upon their conviction that Worachet and Nitirat must be “bad” for the country.
This group of Thais seems to believe Worachet and his Nitirat fellows are intent on “destroying the country.” They believe there is a conspiracy in which Nitirat are cohorts of Thaksin, the evil one. No matter that Worachet has said he has never met or talked to Thaksin, or the fact that one does not need to like Thaksin, let alone be his cohort, to support Article 112 amendment (many who do are not admirers of Thaksin). Or that discussing the monarchy and wanting to change a law about the revered institution does not mean one is disloyal. But that’s not how these Thais with Patriotic Heart see it. One placard in the picture below (on the far left) reads: “Execution ONLY for whoever insults the monarchy!”
That kind of message brings to mind the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Or treatments of Christian heretics in the middle ages. Forget about the finer point of what constitutes “insult” in the law or the concept that the punishment should be proportionate to the crime (in line with what’s expected in the modern civilized society). Emotions have run too high for a lot of people and the heat of emotions has burned and short-circuited their analytical faculty.
These days with so much information circulated through countless channels, one would think it’s hard for anyone to remain ignorant about things they find important enough to want to behead somebody. But I’ve come to realize, ignorance, especially the willful kind, often has little to do with availability, even ubiquity, of information.
Why? Intense and blind fury that comes with ignorance generally has to do with faith, not knowledge. It’s the kind of fury at the sacrilege – the violation of the inviolable. The kind of thing that people can’t do, because they just can’t, and that’s that. Faith needs no logic. And facts are irrelevant.
This kind of faith-based reaction is found not only among the common believers, but also among the so called educated elite. In fact, it seems the more powerful and educated have the most fiery reactions. The bombastic deputy prime minister Chalerm Yoobamrung has said hat even thinking about amending Article 112 was already equivalent to going to hell. At least two universities have banned activities related to the lese majeste law: Thammasat University (formerly known as University of Moral and Political Sciences) has banned Nitirat from conducting its Article 112 amendment campaign on the campuses, and the College of Politics and Government of Mahasarakam University banned a discussion forum “Rights and Freedoms in a Democracy under the Lèse Majesté Law” to be held on its premises.
Amidst the emerging row on freedom of expression following the Thammasat’s ban of Nitirat to use the university campuses for Article 112-related campaign activities, King Prajadipok Institute’s Society alumni association also demanded that Nitirat called off its campaign (for Article 112 amendment and a new constitution). It also urged Thammasat University to “control the behaviors and actions of [Nitirat]” which it argued “has led to division in the country.” It also threatened, if Nitirat doesn’t stop their actions, “the society would respond with measures from light to drastic.”
“This is not about the laws, but about the faith,” it added.
Kudos to King Prahadipok Institute’s Society alumni for their frankness!
Some people may disagree but to me it makes a lot of sense to see Nitirat as the Thai equivalent of Galileo, who insisted that the Earth was not fixed but revolved around the Sun and was swiftly condemned. The question is: how will it play out for this group of Thai Galielos and how strong will be the wrath of the pious Thai believers.
(This article was first published as a SiamVoices blog on Asian Correspondent on 6 February 2012.)