Roundup of #LMRD panel discussion

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Ben Anderson and Sulak Sivaraksa. Pic Tweeted by Lisa Gardner, though I believe the credit is to Yan Marchal.
Ben Anderson and Sulak Sivaraksa. Pic Tweeted by Lisa Gardner, though I believe the credit is to Yan Marchal.

It was hailed as a once in a lifetime, unmissable event. If you were to miss it, you'd miss out. It was, of course, the long-awaited panel discussion titled "Rhetoric and dissent: where to next for Thailand's lese majeste law?" After some confusion over the venue, the talk took place tonight and drew a decent-sized crowd of about 60 people (note: I had counted 60, but my colleague informed me that it was more like 100 towards the end), mostly young Thais and local media types with a healthy smattering of foreign journos and observers.

David Streckfuss dropped out at the last minute and was replaced by social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, who joined nationalism guru Ben Anderson, well-dressed Nation journo Pravit Rojanaphruk and former Reuters bureau chief Andrew Marshall (via Skype).

Having Sulak and Ben Anderson on the bill was what caught my attention really as the work of those two formed a pretty big chunk of various bits of my postgrad work at SOAS last year. Pravit I haven't really been a huge fan of since his rantings about rich people during the floods last year. As for Marshall, I respect what he has done and does, but all too often I feel he fails to distance himself from the subjects he writes about. It becomes all about him, which I feared this panel discussion might also be.

Nevertheless, it was actually a fruitful, if rather predictable, discussion that touched on a number of key issues. It wasn't, however, much of a debate. It was really a case of preaching to the choir. The panelists were introduced as heroes and not taken to issue on any of their stances. It was clear from the start that this was not going to be the firestorm that perhaps the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) had feared when it pulled out as the host venue.

The event was held at Sulak's Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation. The FCCT drew quite a bit of flak from panelists and attendees alike for getting cold feet at such short notice (after Jiew was sentenced). Had the talk been at the FCCT, there would have been a better turnout, I'm sure. At the end of the day, though, we can attend as many panel discussions as we want, but that's not where real change comes from, so perhaps the gravity of tonight's discussion was somewhat overstated.


As for the speakers, Pravit opened up the proceedings and talked about the psychological need for having the monarchy institution and the desire among some circles to maintain the perception of the monarchy as sacred.

Pravit also had a pop at the media, saying it is in a state of denial.

"There wil always be people who stand to gain from the lack of transparency and the lack of legal scrutiny…" he added.


We then moved on to Ben Anderson, who began with a few words about the Spanish monarchy.

"If you look outside Thailand… the solid monarchies… are striking by the fact that they have lese majeste laws, they all do, but these laws are more or less not used at all. It's striking that the laws for lese majeste increase in harshness as the monarchy is afraid," he said.

"In Europe, the country with the harshest lese majeste law is Spain, and there's good reason for that, which is that there is a huge scandal going on now in Spain which has now reached the point that many journalistrs and commentators… have actually said that it is the time that the king abdicates," he added.

"Abdication is not something traditional but it is a solution to problems where the ruler or the successor is really unacceptable. The interesting thing about the Spanish lese majeste laws is that they have been harshly used but in the present crisis the monarchy doesn't dare do anything… because the scandals that have opened are out of the control of even spain," said Anderson.

"This is a monarch who has a lot to hide… but it's now not possible to do this any more because there's too many media sources all aournd the world who want to know about this," he added.

An interesting point Anderson raised was about the changing face of Thai society. The number of active Buddhist monks in the country has decreased by about 70% in the last decade because of rapid urbnaisation, the media and new forms of consumerism.

"This means that the space for holiness, as it were, is really quite seriously damaged," he said.

Anderson also drew attention to what he called the "enormous campaign… to drown the visible roads, shops, etc. with endlessly repeated picturess of members of the royal family", something you won't find anywhere else in the world.


Next up was Sulak, who opened with a a bit of history lesson and a few pop shots at America for backing dictators in Thailand and journalists for not having the guts to report the truth and instill change in Thai society.

Sulak rubbished the idea that poor people don't care about democracy, citing India, the world's largest democracy, as a clear example of poor people "getting it", as it were. Making similar comments to Anderson about the state of Thai education, Sulak said that most universities in Thailand are hopeless.

"None of them care for freedom, none of them care for truth, none of them care for moral courage. They are intetrested in money and power."


After Sulak, it was, of course, time for Andrew Marshall, who was introduced like a rock star.

Though it was hard to hear Marshall due to a dodgy Internet hookup, from what I gathered, he wasted no time in slamming the FCCT for not hosting the event and criticising the foreign media in general for not reporting "the truth". There was a little speech about principles and with the Scottish accent I did at times think we were listening to William Wallace in Braveheart ("freedom!").

Though he did speak about himself quite a bit, Marshall did make some fair points.

“You can't pretend that you don't know something and walk away. You have to make the effort to tell the truth. And so that's what I did.”

I got the impression that Marshall is very frustrated that other members of the media haven't followed his lead.

All in all, Marshall's talk was fairly self-restrained and he largely touched on things that he's talked about on his Facebook page in the past, so it wasn't really anything new.

In closing

During the Q&A session, Pravit suggested that young people taking to the Intrernet to debate important issues is a source of hope, adding that myths perpetuated by media are shattered once you go on twitter or Facebook. This was an important point really because so much of the debate is happening in online spaces.

And that's pretty much it for this round up. I wrote this at about 4 am so I'm sure I've left a few bits out (some intentionally) and perhaps got a few things wrong here and there, but for me these were the highlights. I think the event was a success and I'm grateful to Lisa Gardner for putting the time and effort into organising it.

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