It was the great 16th Century French essayist Michel de Montaigne who best expressed the idea that travel broadens the mind: “Je ne sache point meilleure école à former la vie”.* To travel, though, is not only to learn more about ourselves, but also to catch what we may be tempted to label brief glimpses of truth, glimpses that are rarely – if ever – afforded to those who live, day in and day out, in the pell-mell of our destinations. An outsider’s empiricism is often the best kind: nonpartisan, unflinching, honest.
One such glimpse occurred to me as I was travelling down one of the many canals that form the veins and arteries of the Chao Phraya River, as it carves its way through the magnificent heart of Bangkok. “Long live our beloved king,” the banner read, flailing desperately in the wind that rushed across the waterway, interminably barraging crystalline droplets against what seemed like millions of timber-stilted shacks, almost quivering, as if one unanticipated gust would be enough to topple them from their flimsy foundations (if they had any at all). Something about the meek blue message seemed half-hearted, buffeted as it was, waving drunkenly in the humid air, riddled with rips and holes, worn and discoloured with years of wind-induced oppression and distemperature.
Perhaps my feeling of discomfort came from the fact that only a few hours earlier I’d been taking in a wholly different scene: a plush palace, fit for a king – or a dictator. Chitralada Palace is four square kilometres of opulence, guarded as much by its moat as the lèse-majesté laws that protect the His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s power. It’s a far cry from the humble dwellings of his subjects.
King Rama IX (as he likes to be known) has served as Thailand’s head of state for an astonishing 66 years. Throughout that time, he has been officially infallible, accorded the status of a deity. The Thai Constitution decrees that the “King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action”. It’s the type of insulation from criticism one might expect from North Korea’s necrocracy, or the Roman Catholic Church.
And, before you wonder, the Thai authorities don’t just talk the talk. The 2012 Human Rights Watch Report suggests that over 400 such cases were prosecuted (mainly with trials behind closed doors) from 2010-11 with reference to the country’s warped Criminal Code, which imposes a penalty of between three and fifteen years imprisonment for whoever “defames, insults or threatens” the monarchy. In March 2011, Tanthawut Taweewarodomkul was locked up for 13 years for posting a video which the authorities deemed to have overstepped the mark (entitled ‘Thailand’s Way Out’) on the Internet – in the UK, that length of sentence would be reserved for crimes on the level of human trafficking, sexual assault, burglary and causing death by dangerous driving.**
Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, sums it up astutely by asserting that a “chokehold on freedom of expression is being created in the name of protecting the monarchy”. It’s a chokehold that has become tighter and tighter following the 2006 military coup, the subversion of the establishment by the Red Shirts, and fears pertaining to the 84 year-old ruler’s mortality. As soon as age-old institutions start to become arthritic, threatened by young, energetic and determined rivals, international human rights obligations are thrown out of the window; and that is something we simply cannot allow to happen. In the wakes of the blood-splattered corpses of Maghreb tyranny (in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and – hopefully very soon – Syria), we must rise to the challenge and become even more vigilant in asserting the rights of the subjects of despotic regimes.
* The whole quote from Book III, Chapter IX of his Essais, in English, runs like this: “travel is in my opinion a very profitable exercise; the soul is there continually employed in observing new and unknown things, and I do not know, as I have often said a better school wherein to model life than by incessantly exposing to it the diversity of so many other lives, fancies, and usances, and by making it relish a perpetual variety of forms of human nature”. Italicised is the section quoted above in (the more melodious, I would argue) French.
** According to http://www.thelawpages.com/court-cases/maximums.php