Over the past two years, royalists in Thailand have filed hundreds of charges of lèse majesté against their political opponents. As many as 100,00 websites have been banned for insulting the king and the royal family. The country, once hailed as a beacon of democracy for the region, is now ranked 153 out of 178 in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, just above Belarus.
Last week, an American citizen was arrested and charged with insulting the monarchy. Lerpong Wichaikhammat, who was born in Thailand but has lived in the United States for at least thirty years and holds a US passport, posted a link on his blog – four years ago – to a critical biography of the king.
The arrest of an American citizen marks a dramatic ratcheting up of Thailand’s political crisis. Conservatives who used to be constrained by foreign criticism are now so worried about their political future that virtually nothing will hold them back. Meanwhile, the growing politicisation of the royal family may be having the opposite effect to the one intended, and actually be adding to republican sentiment, as poorer Thais who supported Thaksin increasingly view the royal family and its circle as implacably wedded to elite political parties. Thailand appears headed for a political catastrophe that could make last May look like nothing.