The death of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej has severly shakened the country that has had a strong link to monarchy for centuries. The loss of the much beloved king has triggered a form of vigilante justice or ‘Witch Hunt’, which has escalated to several physical assaults against those perceived as not conforming to the mainstream ‘mourning’ norm. Thai’s witch-hunt culture is an interesting case of cyber shaming that moves from a virtual platform to real life.
Why Thais love their late King?
Thailand is one of the around thirty monarchies that remain in the world. Its relationship to the monarchy dates back to the founding of Sukhothai Kingdom in 1238, the early kingdom of Thailand. The country was ruled under the monarchy until 1932 when the revolutionary group seized the power from the king and established a constitutional monarchy. Since the ancient time, the kingship was strongly influenced by Brahmanism and Theravada Buddhism (Ivarsson & Isager, 2010, p. 35-37). The king was often portrayed as being god-like and righteous. This divinity discourse is increasingly displaced by a human king whose virtues become a source of his power and charisma (Wilatsawong, 1977, p.5). Nevertheless, his sacredness remains. Similarly, King Bhumibol’s image is that of semi-divine like but the love for him comes mostly from what Thais see as his modesty and life-long commitment to aiding the country. For Thais, he is a father-like figure and a symbol of Buddhism values and beliefs. The reverence for him also extends to his family, who is protected from all forms of criticism and scrutiny by the strict lese majeste law. But with or without the law, the late king and his family are commonly recognized as an inviolable entity among Thais.
What is a ‘Witch Hunt’?
We usually associate ‘Witch Hunt’ to the Europe’s Dark Age when people were accused of witchcraft and sentenced to brutal death. Initially, the purpose of the hunt was to eradicate those with different religious beliefs before they later changed to serve ones’ self-interest. In the modern day, this word is being coined for the internet activities ‘that carries the objective(s) to target, single out, expose, shame, or socially reprimand certain type of behavior, or patterns of communication, which are not acceptable or intolerable by the mainstream culture in that society’ (Ramasoota, 2016, p. 273).
In Thailand, the word is referring to an act of vigilantism against those accused of lese majeste, or those not conforming to the mourning black dress regulations. This kind of practice emerges with the popularity of social networks in Thai society and sometimes the topics are not only limited to lese majeste but also to other violations of ‘Thainess’. For instance, when men do not sacrifice their seat for women on a public transport. Their picture will be taken and posted on the Internet for online shaming. However, the current witch hunting is not restricted to the cyber sphere anymore, it is transferring its stage to the public life with actual violence.
‘In the name of Father’
The loss of the beloved king has created a phenomenon called ‘hyper-royalism’ in which some people compete against each other to show that ‘my black shirt is blacker than yours’ (Unno, 2016; Tipayanon, 2016). The degree of loyalty and love to the late King, they believe, can be assessed by the outward expression of wearing black clothes or identifying those who don’t follow the mourning norm. Such proclamation of love and loyalty also escalates to justifying and legitimizing the use of violence. For instance, a man who allegedly posted lese majeste comment on his Facebook was physically assaulted by a group of witch hunters who forced him to apologize and shouted ‘I love Father’ to the late King photograph. Some were even attacked in the presence of the police. For example, a mad woman on a bus was mistakenly accused of talking ill to the late King. She was chased out of the bus and was slapped by one of the passengers. (VDO of both cases: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3847564/Do-want-die-Rise-vigilante-mobs-Thailand-woman-slapped-insulting-late-king-teen-blood-pouring-face-attacked-anti-royalty-comments.html)
The Cause of Witch Hunting and the Failure of Rule of Law
John Ronson explained that similar to ordinary citizen joining the East German mass surveillance program, people engage in public shaming because they believe they are doing social good, or in this case protecting the monarch (Ronson, 2015). But this idea alone should not be the only factor to instigate violence. According to Anusorn Unno, the cause of man-hunting culture also comes from impunity culture and political polarization (Unno, 2016). The constant use of lese majeste law by the government, in a way, is like a propaganda that marginalizes people who do not, or are being perceived as not, sharing the love for the monarchy. Several times, the state itself conducts arbitrary detention and unfair trial against those allegedly charged by lese majesty (Amnesty International, 2014). When the rule of law is not even institutionalized, it is not a surprise that some citizens believe they can get away with violence. Additionally, the political conflict that divides the country into Red and Yellow colors could still play a role. The Yellow Shirt division, which consists mostly of urban elitists and the middle class, is known to be a loyal supporter of the monarchy. On the other hand, the Red Shirt division, the supporters of the ex-PM Taksin Shinawatra and mostly the rural farmers, is criticized as an anti-monarchy movement who wants to replace the monarchy with the presidential system. Unno said the witch hunters are likely relating those with lese majesty allegation to their political opponents (2016). That’s why the hunting spread so rapidly and intensely.
Witch hunting should not be tolerated, even for other issues apart from lese majesty. It’s a criminal activity that overrules the normal legal process and has increasingly become a threat to basic human rights such as freedom of expression and human dignity. During this time when the nation is losing its pillar, it is an important duty for the government to quickly reestablish the rule of law, enshrine the code of ethics in citizens, and offers no impunity to perpetuate such morality excuses. Citizens should be made to understand that using violence even in the name of the king is not a righteous expression of love and loyalty. As John Rawls said, in a just society everyone has an equal liberty of citizenship which cannot be overridden, even by ‘the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many’ (Rawls, 1971). In a democratic society, justice means we must respect the minority who act or think differently as well.
Disclaimer: The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.
 Taksin Shinawatra is a former prime minster of Thailand between 2001 and 2006. His government was overthrown by the military in 2007 under the allegation of corruption, abuse of power, and autocratic tendencies. The court sentenced him to two years in jail for abuse of power and convicted his family members on several charges such as money laundering and tax evasion.
 Not all Red Shirts are anti-royalists but they are a strong supporter of deposed PM Taksin Shinawatra.
Amnesty International. (2014). Thailand attitude adjustment- 100 days under martial laws. London: Amnesty International Publications.
Ivarsson, S., & Isager, L. (2010). Introduction: Challenging the standard total view. In S. Ivarsson, & L. Isager, Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand (pp. 1-26). Copenhagen: NIAS.
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Ramasoota, P. (2016). Online social surveillance and cyber-witch hunting in post-2014 coup in Thailand. In C. B. Wungaeo, B. Rehbein, & S. Wun’gaeo, Globalization and Democracy in Southeast Asia-Challenges, Responses and Alternative futures (pp. 269-288). Palgrave Macmillan.
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Ronson, J. (2015). So you’ve been publicly shamed. New York: Penguin.
Tipayanon, A. (2016, October 18). Prated thai mueng mae mod? la tham mai krai Kue phoo took la lae tang ork kue arai [Thailand, a witch city? Why hunting? Who is hunted? What is the exit?]. (E. Bunlue, Interviewer) Retrieved from www.themomentum.co/momentum-feature-witch-hunt-anusorn-tipayanon
Unno, A. (2016, October 25). Thailand’s witch-hunting culture explained by sociologist. Prachatai. (K. Somjittranukit, Interviewer) Retrieved November 21, 2016, from http://www.prachatai.com/english/node/6670