Gossip adds to Thailand's troubles
A Thai banker called with some grim news: 'I've heard whispers the king has had a stroke.' Within the hour another usually well-connected friend called from Bangkok with his own gossip: 'I hear he's completely incapacitated and meetings are already under way about the future.'
Similar conversations blazed across Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore last week as rumours about Thailand's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, reached a disturbing new pitch.
Last Wednesday and Thursday saw steep falls in both the Thai stock market and the currency.
According to official statements, however, the 81-year-old king remains in good condition in hospital, where he has spent the past four weeks suffering from a slight fever and fatigue. His appetite is returning and he is sleeping well.
The gulf between the gossip and the official reality is a sign not just of the wider stakes involved in Thailand's long-running political crisis, but the problem of the country's lese-majeste laws.
Widespread discussion of the king's health, and royal-succession plans, is generally kept exceptionally low-key in a country where laws against any perceived insult to the monarchy can lead to a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
But some analysts and insiders believe the laws are overdue for reform after signs of abuse during long-simmering political tensions. And last week's market agonies were just one more sign of how dangerous the information vacuum has become amid intense private speculation.
Robert Broadfoot, a veteran analyst based in Hong Kong, said he believed lese-majeste laws were one more sign of the institutional weakness plaguing Thailand's crisis, which pits an unelected pro-establishment government against the rural supporters of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
'We can see from the recent stock-market fall just how gossip and innuendo are allowed to build up in the shadows, and ultimately it undermines confidence,' said Broadfoot, the founder of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy. 'If people felt confident about discussing these kinds of things more openly, matters would be put in their proper context. I really think the issue of reform of the lese-majeste laws is something Thailand needs to look at long-term.'
Such views are widely echoed in Thai business and government circles, with many saying privately that far more open rational debate is needed to ease current tensions - and avoid the kind of panic that hit the markets last week. Few want to go public, however.
The current system is seen as a bureaucratic trap, where any Thai can mount a lese-majeste charge. The royal family is not involved in decisions whether to prosecute. Instead, such cases are handled by civil servants and police, who generally err on the side of caution and push ahead with charges.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in Hong Kong this year that reforms were needed to end action against academics and more absurd claims, while still protecting the royal family, whose members could never bring civil court action.
'The problem is more with enforcement over the last few years,' he said. 'My own personal view is that too often the law has been abused or too liberally interpreted.'
There is little sign of those changes, however. Just last month a female opposition activist was sentenced after a closed-door trial to 18 years' jail on charges relating to a peaceful speech.
Noting that lese-majeste laws had earlier served a purpose of keeping a lid on both fair and unfair criticism, Bangkok-based Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak said they now existed in a far more complicated political environment that was no longer conducive to their original intention.
'Abuses have added to an atmosphere of paranoia and innuendo at a time when there is real substance to the debate about Thailand's future,' said Thitinan, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.
'Lese-majeste laws now present a great dilemma for Thailand ... on the one hand, we can see establishment groups suppressing more and more fair debate and discussions.
'On the other we have a catch-22 situation, whereby the abuses and the stifling of debate have led to a great deal of pent-up criticisms and anger. If there is a sudden change or repealing of the laws, that pent-up frustration will burst out.'
Thitinan said changes were overdue to find ways of better administering charges, removing them from the political arena and preventing spurious charges being prosecuted.
He noted that Abhisit's pledges to examine lese-majeste enforcement had yet to be implemented. 'Given the importance of those pledges, you have to wonder if the fact nothing has happened is the sign of a poor leadership or a very weak leader.'