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Thais worried by health of King and country

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Bangkok

Thai King Bhumipol - 23 October 2009
The king is seen as a unifying figure in the politically turbulent country

The birthday celebrations of King Bhumibol Adulyadej are muted this year as the king remains in hospital recovering from pneumonia.

Instead of hearing his annual speech and watching the king's inspection of the glittering trooping of the colour, his loving subjects are worrying about his - and their nation's - health.

More than 1.2 million people have visited the Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok where the king has been staying for more than two-and-a-half months.

Monks, schoolchildren, groups of work colleagues and ordinary people have travelled from across the country to bring flowers and write messages sending him their best.

"I am writing my wish - for the king to get well very soon so he can go back to the palace," said a woman writing in one of the many royal-crested books.

Another woman broke down as she spoke: "The king right now does not feel well so we have come here to support him. I pray every morning for him to get well soon, as the people love him so much."

Unity and division

The king's poor health and a political crisis which has divided Thailand is worrying many people in the kingdom who fear instability and a deepening crisis.

The king has been the country's unifying figure for decades and is seen to have intervened positively in times of crisis.

The application and increasing use of these lese majeste laws represents a very serious threat to press freedom in Thailand
Shawn Crispin
C'ttee to Protect Journalists in SE Asia

"He was born in the United States and grew up in Europe - in Switzerland - and he became king unexpectedly when his brother died in 1946," recalls Paul Handley, who wrote a book on the king which is banned in Thailand.

If we were to repeat here what is in the book, or what he told me in a telephone interview, I could be reported for an offence of "lese majeste" or insulting the monarchy, be investigated by the police and face possible imprisonment in Thailand.

If Paul Handley came here he would probably also be arrested for writing a book seen as critical, and speculating about the future.

"For the public I think there is a lot of confusion. Even though we have a named Crown Prince, no one from the palace is saying this is settled, because no one really wants to talk about [the inevitable]," says Mr Handley.

"They also know the Crown Prince by his reputation," he says, but it's a reputation people cannot openly discuss.

Hushed tones

Satirical websites poke fun at a deadly serious issue - people can be charged or even jailed for just talking about what eventually may happen to the king.

Thais and foreigners alike speak in hushed tones about the Royal Family because of this lese majeste law.

It is designed to protect the king and the royal institution from defamation and libel as the royal family is not protected by the courts in the usual way.

A Thai nurse offers prayers for the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok  - 2 December 2009
Many Thais have visited Siriraj Hospital to pray for the king's health

"The application and increasing use of these lese majeste laws represents a very serious threat to press freedom in Thailand," says Shawn Crispin, who has worked as a journalist in Bangkok for more than a decade and represents the Committee to Protect Journalists in South East Asia.

"Earlier this year the Thai information and communications ministry professed to have closed down at least 2,000 websites because they violated these lese majeste laws which are some of the strictest in the world.

"Penalties of 3-15 years in prison for convictions and the fact that any Thai citizen can file a complaint against any other Thai or foreign citizen, means that without clear guidelines as to how this law is to be applied, it may be undermining the institution this law was designed to protect."

There are some websites which are still operating, among them Same Sky which has a chatroom dedicated to discussions about Thai politics and royalty.

They cover questions over the lese majeste laws, and some criticisms of the monarchy, but to translate them and publish them here could also leave me open to possible imprisonment.

"The website is public, but because people's privacy is protected by pseudonyms, subjects hidden for a long time are being disclosed more," says Thanapol Eawsakul who edits the website and a political magazine of the same name.

"We can't say that everything on the Same Sky web board is the truth but at least we believe there should be a space where people can discuss and share their opinion."

Future fears

There is no denying the real, unconditional love people have here for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

His picture can be seen in many public places, the national anthem is played twice daily across the country and everyone stands for the king's anthem which is played in cinemas before every film.

Chotisak Onsoong, 28, considers himself a human rights activist and for the past five years has not stood for the king's anthem.

A float passes a giant portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit during parade in Bangkok - 3 December 2009
Bright lights, but the king's birthday celebrations are muted this year

On one occasion a fellow cinema-goer objected: "He told me to stand up and when the song finished he went to get the cinema staff and told them to throw me out, but they didn't.

"Then he started to throw water bottles and snack bags and everyone in the movie theatre started to throw water bottles at me too so I left and called the police."

They both went to the police station, but it was Chotisak who was charged - with insulting the king.

"It's my right to not stand up. It's my body so it's my right to do anything with it. A cinema is a place to relax, not a place for political performance," he says.

There have been claims the law to protect members of the Royal Family is being used by political factions as the current law permits any Thai citizen to go to any police station and make a complaint against any Thai or foreign citizen in Thailand.

Once that complaint has been made the police are duty bound to investigate.

Thailand is a deeply divided and unstable country and there is fear for its future without the revered leadership, but there is also fear over what people can even say out loud about certain members of the Royal Family.



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