'The King and I' Re-Imagined: Thailand's Dangerous Libel Laws

'The King and I' Re-Imagined: Thailand's Dangerous Libel Laws
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像
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A U.S. production of The King and I is a reminder of lèse majesté laws in Thailand, and the renewed importance of artistic free expression amid Trump’s call for tightening of libel laws.

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A revival of "The King and I" currently graces the stage of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, DC. This is the same Tony Award-winning production most notable in the U.S. for having all Asian roles played, for the first time, by Asian actors. While the production has been widely heralded for its cultural sensitivity, it is seldom mentioned in U.S. reports that "The King and I" remains a controversial topic in Thailand, the country in which it is set.

In fact, it might surprise most Americans that this seemingly innocuous 1951 musical could be considered so offensive as to receive a national ban in Thailand.

The stated reasons for the ban, which has applied since 1956, are that the play is historically inaccurate and that the King is portrayed as a comic figure. Those observations are accurate. Yet, the play also depicts a monarch in the volatile 1860s, when neighboring Cambodia had just come under the “protection” of France, and Britain was sizing up Siam for a similar acquisition. Though the stage king supplies plenty of comic relief, one wonders whether the Thai people might appreciate the acknowledgment of the revered Rama IV’s critical role in securing their nation’s history of independence from foreign powers.

Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which makes it a crime to “defame, insult or threaten the King, Queen, heir apparent or regent,” became law in 1908. A more robust application of this lèse majesté law followed the 1957 coup and the monarchy’s expanded role in Thai public life, as well as the military’s justification of its prominence as protector of the royal family. The Thai people scarcely knew the late King Bhumibol when he ascended the throne as a boy in 1946, but his decades of public visits to Thailand’s provinces and his patronage of development projects helped cement reverence toward him.

Prior to the King’s death in 2016, it was virtually impossible to disaggregate the Thai public view of monarchy from the widespread affection and respect for Bhumibol. The Thai people can hardly be expected to transfer the regard they held for his father to the new king, and this disconnect may allow a clearer picture of public support for the monarchy to emerge.

Perhaps in anticipation of shifting public views on the post-Bhumibol monarchy, the junta has arrested at least 82 people on lèse majesté charges since the 2014 coup, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, with the longest ever sentence of 35 years recently being given to a man who posted content on Facebook deemed defamatory to the monarchy. Now, the government has doubled-down on the threat of lèse majesté to silence dissent by recently announcing that even viewing defamatory content may violate the law.

It’s a good thing that Donald Trump has likely never heard of lèse majesté laws. One could imagine him handing his Republican congressional leaders marching orders to stop beating the dead horse of Obamacare repeal and pursue a less president law instead.

While the seven months of Trump’s tenure has given us wildly conflicting policy messages, one principle has consistently shone through the 45th President of the United States cannot tolerate even the slightest public criticism. Trump’s stewing over his news coverage has led him to declare that he wants to “open up libel laws.”

This is perplexing, as there is no federal libel law in the U.S. Rather, protection against libel is derived from the First Amendment of the Constitution. Changing the constitution is no small undertaking, yet Trump has already begun a series of judicial nominations, starting with Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch, who may well render interpretations of the law destined to undercut civil liberties, including freedom of speech.

If Trump succeeds in limiting First Amendment rights, would the new standard only apply to news coverage, or would it also include artistic expression? If it’s the latter, then embattled Attorney General Sessions would need to greatly expand his number of prosecutors to keep up with law-breakers, as the non-stop circus that is Year One of the Trump Administration may have produced no meaningful legislation, but has resulted in a bumper crop of political satire.

But Americans are accustomed to satire, secure in the right to poke fun at those in power. At present, it costs Americans nothing to make jokes at Trump’s expense. The crucial question is who will continue to cast slings and arrows if the day comes when legal freedom of expression is curtailed?

Fortunately, we have courageous examples from around the world of artists who have slyly challenged oppressive political systems. Despite efforts to clamp down on it, some of that mischief has even flourished in Southeast Asia.

On my first visit to Myanmar in 2001, I trudged through the darkness of a power blackout to attend a comedic anyeint performance by the celebrated Moustache Brothers, in a garage, illuminated by a humming backup generator. The troupe’s founder, Par Par Lay, had recently been released from prison, for the crime of making jokes about Myanmar’s military rulers.

After five-and-a-half years of hard labor, Par Par was not yet up to performing. But his younger brother Lu Maw took to the stage that night to perform the famous joke about the Burmese man who travelled to India for dental care (“Don’t you have dentists in your country?,” “We do, but we’re not allowed to open our mouths”), as well as the slippery-fingered “government dance,” characterised by picking the pockets of everyone in sight, much to the delight of the audience.

Artistic expression can create powerful impressions which provoke calls for change, and can sometimes succeed in shaking regimes thought to be beyond the reach of public rebuke. "The King and I" ends with Crown Prince Chulalongkorn becoming king in 1868, and vowing to abolish the requirement of subjects crawling prostrate in the king’s presence, a triumph of modern sensibility made possible by his father’s openness to new thought. The custom was revived, however, at the urging of Sarit Thanarat, the military officer who staged the 1957 coup early in Bhumibol’s reign.

On second thought, perhaps it is a dangerous piece of agitprop, after all.

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis, opinion, debate, and discussion.

TNL Editor: Edward White