A soldier climbs a barricade in front of a picture of Thailand King Bhumibol Adulyadej. REUTERS/Damir Sagolij
A soldier climbs a barricade in front of a picture of Thailand King Bhumibol Adulyadej. REUTERS/Damir Sagolij

By Leonard Novarro and Rosalynn Carmen

They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

No more.

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A conference held there over Labor Day weekend to restore democracy in Thailand is expected to have reverberations 8,200 miles away. Not only did it call for an end to the abuse of political and human rights in that country. Many called for an end to the monarchy, a move that would guarantee imprisonment in Thailand, or worse.

Books criticizing the monarchy are banned in that country; anyone possessing one faces a minimum of three years in prison. Western journalists have also been kicked out for writing anything negative about the king or his family.

More recently, the general who led the last military coup in 2014 told a roomful of journalists that he will “probably just execute” any journalist who doesn’t “report the truth,” and before that, in June, the military government announced a special meeting for 200 local and foreign journalists to teach them how to ask “constructive questions.”

According to several human rights watchdog groups, anywhere from 4,000 and 10,000 people, citizens and foreigners, have been jailed for speaking out against the current military regime, which has the support of the Thai royal family.

Simon Kittiya at the conference in Las Vegas. Photo by Rosalynn Carmen
Simon Kittiya at the conference in Las Vegas. Photo by Rosalynn Carmen

But that didn’t stop more than 100 people of Thai descent – some like former Minister of Transport Charupong Ruangsuwan, recently exiled for speaking out against the current regime, and many attending from as far away as Denmark — from criticizing the iron rule of the current government. A military coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and his sister, Yingluck, eight years later. Both were elected to office by sizeable majorities.

Themed “Bring Democracy Back to Thailand,” the conference was hosted by the Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy, which claims followers in 29 countries, 68 provinces in Thailand and nine U.S. states.

“Our message is that we do not like the monarchy involved in politics,” said Sukit Subaneksant, a photographer representing an Illinois-based group. “The monarchy uses the power of dictatorship. The monarchy happens to be on the side of dictators,” he added. “Let’s change the constitution. Let’s go with the Japanese style so everyone will be happy.” Once the “last rule” in Japan, today the title of “emperor” is ceremonial and symbolic only.

Prachuab Charoensuk’s father, Lee Kwong, was jailed by the military in 1955 after negotiating a treaty with Communist China. When he returned to Thailand, he was sentenced to eight years in prison, for no apparent reason, but released eight months later, according to Charoensuk, who lives in Los Angeles. “That’s why I am involved,” he said in criticizing a history of the military’s hold on the country. “A lot of people in Thailand are afraid to speak out. I am not. I am not going back to Thailand,” said Charoensuk, an American citizen.

“The monarchy has too much power and the group associated with the monarchy has too many privileges,” he said. “There were 193 countries that used to have a monarchy. Now there are only 23,” he added.  “The monarchy is definitely broken.”

However, the monarchy is far from broken when it comes to personal wealth.

The current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has reigned since 1946, is the richest monarch in the world, surpassing the sultan of Brunei and presiding over a fortune worth $30 billion. The Crown Property Bureau, established by the Thai Parliament in 1935, manages the royal wealth, largely from property and vast land holdings, much of it donated by citizens, and from major industries such as oil. For large companies to operate in Thailand, they must have a stamp of approval from the royal family, which gets an automatic percentage of the business.

In addition to the title “head of state,” the king holds the titles “head of the armed forces,” which explains the strong monarchy-military alliance. In addition, the army is officially called the “Royal Thai Army.”

“The king is always above the law. He is like the mafia. That is the contradiction in the country that is supposed to be a democracy,” said Randy Permpoon of Vista, former head of the Thai Commerce Association, who led the San Diego delegation of four. “The king told the people they must be self-sufficient by growing their own food. That’s like Marie Antoinette, the wife of the French king who said: ‘Let them eat cake,’” he added.

In the morning, speaking from the podium, Anake Chaichana, a San Francisco restaurateur and secretary of the organization, said Ruangsuwan, forced to flee to Northern California with his family, is typical of goings-on in Thailand. As he spoke, a sign stating that “Sovereignty Belongs To, And Must Be Used By The Thai People” behind him, many in the audience got up proclaiming that the monarchy should not be above democracy.

“This is the first attempt to sit down and talk together. The economy is affected, people are being beaten and jailed, tourism is off. Meanwhile, people are being misinformed that everything is ok,” said Piangdin Rakhthai, one of the organizers, outside the meeting room. “This is the right point in history to step down. We will end the monarchy.”

However, when organizers suggested making that the main point of the gathering, not everyone agreed. According to organizers, the following recommendations will be sent to the current government and to the United Nations:

  • Abolish preferential tax treatment
  • Rewrite the constitution to prohibit military home rule
  • Eliminate the monarchy’s influence in state affairs
  • Make the monarchy a ceremonial office only
  • Lift bans on social media and all forms of dissent
  • Release all political prisoners jailed under the current regime

Several said they would also like to see the United States restrict Thai imports.

“We in America know our rights. We have to respect other people’s rights, too,” said one delegate from Los Angeles. “When they know their rights, the more they will know a real democracy.”

“Freedom is like oxygen. It’s taken for granted,” said Prajoub Jaleansuk. “But when you are jailed or constrained and don’t have it, it’s the difference between life and death.”

Leonard Novarro and Rosalynn Carmen are co-founders of Asia Media America and the Asian Heritage Society in San Diego.