The Flip Side of the Land of Smiles

Thailand, known as the Land of Smiles, is a beautiful and easy place to travel. In addition to the endless options of postcard white-sand beaches, trekking and elephant ride adventures, the country goes out of its way to welcome tourists and help them enjoy a relaxing holiday. Sure, they know it’s good for business – tourism brings in about 6% of the country’s GDP – but the Thai laid back and genuinely sunny demeanor seems a natural match for the tourism industry.

The sincere adoration of King Bhumibol Adulyadej is visible everywhere. Thais refer to the King as “our father” and the display of yellow shirts, a physical symbol of reverence to the king, is seen on every street corner in Thailand, especially on Mondays. The King’s image is in every store and home, and it’s displayed on billboards all over the country. He’s above human – a deity of sorts.

One guest house owner referred to him as “my king who takes care of us. He loves us and makes sure we all have food and shelter.” We had just seen Burmese refugees locked up in Ranong, awaiting return to Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma), and she was comparing the benevolence of her king with the cruelty of the Burmese military regime. She didn’t realize the irony in that the Thai government now is also a military regime; however, in the eyes of the Thais it’s a “cleansed” military regime, semi-legitimate due to the King’s approval.

The flip side of this reverence is Thailand’s lese majeste law, the one that severely punishes anyone who defames the King. The smiles go away…

Oliver Jufer, a 57-year-old Swiss tourist visiting Chiang Mai last December, learned this the hard way. In a drunken stupor, he defaced five posters of the King with spray paint (apparently after a store-owner declined to sell him alcohol because it was past the legal cut-off time).

The jail time for Oliver’s move could have been 75 years in prison, but he was eventually sentenced to 10 years in jail. His prayers were answered, and he received a rather magnanimous pardon from the King in April, just before the Thai New Year.

Thailand also made the news in April for banning youtube after a video appeared desecrating the image of the King. The video apparently showed foot prints and feet on the King’s image. Within days of the ban, several more disrespectful videos appeared. The irony is that more people have searched out and viewed these videos because of the news coverage. The Thai government is asking youtube to take down the videos, and youtube sites free speech as its reason for standing its ground.

We haven’t seen any polls done on this issue, but it’s likely that a vast majority of Thais would support upholding these severe lese majeste laws, even though they infringe on free speech. Free speech and criticism are for politicians and ordinary people; to them, the King is above them all, worthy of a different standard.

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