Michael's Dispatches

Some Thoughts About The Kingdom of Thailand

img009-1000A US Soldier is mortally wounded from combat. Afghanistan 2011.

When the Bangkok fighting was intense, I was conservative and put on my writing hat, and prayed that the photographers would not get hit.  Some did.

Combat is too familiar for me to treat every firefight as if it were the last train running.  In my world, firefights are a continuously looping train.  Sometimes I sit and watch the bloody train go round-and-round.

img010-1000Photographing just after lethal bomb blast in Afghanistan, 2011

This year, 2012, is the first year since December 2004 that I have not been in a serious war.  I witnessed sustained and serious combat in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011.  If fortune graces me for 48 hours, 2012 will be the first year that I did not witness war since December 2004.

img011-1000American rockets strike in Afghanistan, 2011.

By 2010, having already spent much time in Thailand, I was in a good position to understand the fighting.

I do not comprehensively understand the politics behind the fighting—only Thai or specialized analysts can make that claim—but I can analyze the fighting itself.

Many of the amateurs said that my words were false.   They said that the RTA, under orders from then-Prime Minister Abhisit, committed murder.  They produced no proof to support these sensational murder allegations.

Thailand enjoys freedom of the press.   Few topics are off limits.  Pornography is off limits.

An insult to the Royal institution can get you imprisoned.  If you disparage the Royalty on Facebook while in Kansas, and months later fly to Thailand, you may be arrested and jailed.

img012-1000Soldiers sizing up the battlefield in front of the Dusit Thani.

A task force in Bangkok combs the Internet for acts of lèse majesté.  I took a drive recently with one of the officers who works on that task force.  He said that offenders residing in the United States commit most violations.

If you are an American and you commit lèse majesté, the King may pardon you after some time in prison.  If you are fortunate you may be sent back to America and blacklisted.  You will not be tortured or beaten.

You will endure the same penal conditions as any other convict, which in Thailand, as anywhere, can be unpleasant.  You will be declared persona non grata, and you will not be welcome to return to the Kingdom.

His Majesty King Bhumibol of Thailand is an excellent man of peace, and he is revered as a grandfatherly figure here.  I could easily leave Thailand and write otherwise, but this is true.

The King is highly respected by American military and government officials.  I was invited to a private clubhouse for American military veterans, and they had a portrait of His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen on the wall.

Behind closed doors, amongst themselves, the veterans of our military hold King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the highest esteem.  The King earned respect through hard work for his people.  He is beloved.

The King spent much time in the United States in his youth.  He is always welcome in America.  The King will never go thirsty when I have water.

img013-1000The RTA allowed complete access to the combat zone.

Criticizing the King of Thailand is not like disparaging the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Thailand.

It is permissible to criticize the Prime Minister of Thailand.  The Thai often do it, no matter who he or she may be.  Thai people criticize their leadership with passion and imagination.

The current Prime Minister of Thailand is a woman.  The United States has never had a female president, while Poland, Germany, the UK, and Pakistan all have had female leaders.  South Korea just elected a woman.

While the gender of the chief executive may not be a critical matter, it is clear that America does not have a patent on “democracy,” and in some ways, compared to other countries, Americans are not as free as we like to believe and advertise.

But insulting His Majesty the King is like insulting the beloved grandfather of millions of proud Thai people.  I doubt that the King himself cares about such comments, but millions of his subjects do, and passionately.

My Thai friends will defend the King with their lives.  The same way that we would protect our grandparents.  These many words are meant to underline a matter of utmost seriousness.

img014-1000A woman rescues a photograph of the beloved King and Queen of Thailand. Stores had been looted and burned. Among so many valuables, she rescued the image of the King and Queen.

Aside from issues of lèse majesté, press freedoms are more liberal in Thailand than most other countries that I have seen.

People are free to write words in the Kingdom that would get them thrown in jail in Singapore, or that might start religious riots in India, or that might get them stoned to death in Pakistan, or a fatwa put on their head.

Cartoons that would cause riots in other countries are ignored or laughed at here.

Journalists are required to obtain special visas in countries such as India, Myanmar, Israel, China, and the United States.  Not Thailand.

Thailand does not fear ink.

You are free to write until your pen runs dry.

Foreign journalists without an office in the United States must apply for a special visa or risk deportation at the border.

I went to Israel without a visa and inadvertently caused a kerfuffle, but to their credit, the Israelis were good about it.

I was asked to speak at a conference in India. Hassles getting a visa led me to cancel.

India is freer than the United States in many respects, but a misplaced word can launch riots.  Indians deal with complexities that are unfamiliar to most Americans and Thai.

Yet a western journalist can read this, then drive to an airport, buy the next available ticket, and fly to Thailand.  No visa required.  No charge for Americans.

If you are in California, and you get the notion that “I will fly to Bangkok this afternoon,” you can.  No need to pack a bag.  Buy everything here.

You can land in Bangkok with nothing but your passport and a return ticket.  Airlines are required to stipulate that you have a return ticket, unless you have a long-stay visa, but in my experience Thai authorities never ask to see the ticket.  I almost never have one.


Thai authorities do not require that you declare that you are a journalist (in my case a writer), carrying the most dangerous weapon on the planet (a camera) and the second most dangerous weapon (a pen).

Not that it matters if you bring a camera.  You can purchase the latest hardware at the airport, or downtown.

You can show up with ten cameras in bags, and another camera over your shoulder, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned, “I am a journalist.   I will make Thailand look bad,” wearing a hat that says, “I hate Thailand.  I am a journalist.”

I do not recommend this action, but you can, and you would probably be admitted to the Kingdom along with all other visitors, with no hassle.

Do not try that in China, Singapore, Israel, India, or in the United States.

In Thailand, the immigration officer will stamp your passport and wave you through.

If you are smuggling drugs, you risk execution.

If not, you are free to travel anywhere, anytime, with few restrictions of any kind.

img016-1000Correspondents on the battlefield in the central business district of Bangkok.

You are free to file stories night and day, describing how much you hate Thailand, and how terrible it is, and how terrible the government is.

You can focus on drug abuse, prostitution, corruption, on people who drive motorbikes without helmets or lights while talking on a cell phone, and ignore the innumerable virtues of this delightful Kingdom.

Most Thai will smile and shrug.  They have other matters of concern.

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