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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

DECEMBER 3, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 48

A Protective Law
It's called lèse-majesté - and it is taken seriously
By JULIAN GEARING

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A Protective Law
It's called lèse-majesté -- and it is taken seriously

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The term lèse-majesté is defined as, among other things, "a crime against the sovereign; an offense against a ruler's dignity." Around the world, this can mean many things, depending on the royal family and the country. In Thailand, lèse-majesté is a very serious matter. Just ask Frenchman Lech Tomacz Kisielwicz, who in 1995 made a derogatory remark about a Thai princess while on board a Thai Airways flight - in international airspace. When the plane landed in Bangkok, he was taken into custody and charged with offending the monarchy. He was detained for two weeks, released on bail, and acquitted after writing a letter of apology to King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Hollywood is not beyond the reach of the law. A poster for the new movie 'Anna and the King', purportedly based on the life of King Mongkut (Rama IV), shows female lead Jodie Foster above the King, played by Chow Yun-fat. This is not acceptable in Thailand, where the monarch must always appear above commoners. 'Anna and the King' - and its poster - probably won't make it to Thailand.

The board of censors also says the way the movie portrays King Mongkut is insensitive, historically inaccurate and lacks respect for the monarchy. What's more, says board member Pattamavadee Juravorn, Chow wields his sword like a Chinese swordsman. "That's not what we would expect to see from a Thai king." Other scenes show Foster, as English teacher Anna Leonowens, arguing with the ruler. Anna and the King, a 20th Century Fox production, had to be shot in Malaysia after being banned from Thailand. It is being released in December.

Sulak Sivaraksa, a social critic and royalist, has called for repeal of the lèse-majesté law, saying it is dangerous for those who want to air criticism of politicians or generals who use the monarchy as a "political tool for their ambitions." He says that for the monarchy or any institution to be relevant, it needs constructive criticism. Sulak has been charged twice under the law. The first charge was dropped and he was acquitted on the second. The lèse-majesté law is rarely applied as most people know its power well enough not to risk prosecution.

The legislation has to be understood in the context of the genuine respect for the King and his role. "The King and Queen, by tradition, do not answer, they don't respond," says former premier Anand Panyarachun. "So it is unfair for people on the street, for anybody in society, to level so-called criticism or critical remarks about them." Foreigners might find the law difficult to accept. Yet for all but a handful of Thais, there is little need to explain why Thailand chooses to maintain the reverence and mystique of the monarchy.

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