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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  • This commment is unpublished.
    WF · 6 years ago
    Thank you Mr. Yon for covering the truth, many of us really appreciate your work on covering the truth. I myself really hate it now when the truth were twist for evil purpose and the false rumors were spend to destroying innocence people who do good deed.
    Still those who really need to face justice now become the one in power I don't know if us Thai people will really knows the real Peace. The situation is just like A group of Blind people believe they can see very clearly than before and refuse to accept the reality even we throw the truth at them they won't believe it.
    Thank you again for the details truth.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ralph Schatzki · 6 years ago
    Thank you so much for this very well-written and powerful piece. I lived as an ex-pat American in Bangkok for more than thirteen years, and I agree unreservedly with everything you have stated with regard to Thai hospitality and acceptance. Not long into my stay in the Kingdom- a wonderful and vastly different place than the USA- I realized that "freedom" can be construed very differently depending on one's expectations, background, culture, and experience. I underwent tremendous growth while living there, and I have no doubt that any American who desires to experience similar growth would benefit immeasurably by spending time there (or, for that matter, in any other culture significantly different from our own).

    I had written a short piece awhile back, the gist of which was that Americans celebrate diversity, and in an almost paradoxical way this is what defines us. Thais, on the other hand, are in so many ways a very unified people. The colors of the Thai flag represent the country, the religion, and the King, and to criticize the King is tantamount to a renunciation of one's "Thai-ness."

    I salute both your tenacity and your courage to speak the truth. This is the kind of reporting of which the world needs more.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Thomas Dikel · 6 years ago
    As always, a beautifully written dispatch. Too bad I'm not on the Pulitzer committee, otherwise you'd have my vote. Thank you. Stay safe brother.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Will Fireatte · 6 years ago
    Beautifully written. I was not there during that difficult time, but everything else you wrote agrees with my own experiences. Thailand is such a wonderful country in many ways. I wish it, and it's people, the best. Thank you for acting with courage and integrity. You represent your own countrymen better than some of our diplomats (or tourists) do! Stay safe. Swasdee Pee Mai krub (Happy New Year)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kurt Olney · 6 years ago
    Not sure what to make of this. You have definitely placed yourself in harms way. The journalism you describe in Thailand is non existent in Mexico. Crime scenes in the U.S. are definitely restricted to journalist. Of course visiting any country you are subject to their laws and customs. I will give what you have a written a lot of thought. In the meantime I hope they don't decide to shoot you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Heywood Jablomi · 6 years ago
    But it is also very simple.

    There are more Red Shirts than there are Yellow Shirts. So the Puea Thai party indisputably won the last election.

    Part of the problem is that the Red Shirts felt as though they were disenfranchised by the coup that deposed Mr. Thaksin in 2006, and there is no question that it was a national trauma inflicted on the Thai body politic.

    Because the Democrat party was able to form a governing coalition with the Bumjaithai party, Red Shirts felt that the Bangkok elites illegitimately took power. You must remember that the constitution and the judicial system disbanded both the PPP and the TRT parties, the predecessors of the currently ruling Puea Thai.

    This is the reason why the current government, and the Red Shirts (they are not synonymous), wish to amend the constitution. They want to delete the clauses that ban corrupt politicians who commit electoral fraud from participation in politics for five years, and most of all they want to delete the clauses that punish parties for the individual abuses of party members by disbanding the parties.

    Mr. Abhisit, as the opposition leader in Parliament, opposes these constitutional changes. He also opposes efforts by the government to pass "reconciliation" measures, which are really a mass pardon for all who committed violence in 2010. Such a pardon would magically make Mr. Thaksin's conviction for corruption vanish, as well as the plethora of criminal charges that are pending against him, including support for terrorism. Mr. Thaksin could, in the event of a pardon, finally return to Thailand.

    Mr. Thaksin and the Red Shirts believe that he was wrongly exiled. In truth, however, Mr. Thaksin has exiled himself. He was granted bail after his conviction on fraud charges, and he received permission from judicial authorities to attend the Olympic Games. Mr. Thaksin never returned to Thailand. He chose self-exile, rather than face the prospect of a jail term. In any case, Mr. Thaksin and the Red Shirts characterize his conviction as "political," and they insist that it was not legitimate.

    The primary obstacle to "reconciliation" and the changes to the constitution that the Red Shirts advocate is Mr. Abhisit. So they attack him. They attempted to have his military rank revoked, but only His Majesty can do that. So the Reds were stymied there. Now they are charging Mr. Abhisit with murder. There is no question that this is an abuse of police authority.

    When Thailand is a country that can prosecute former Prime Ministers for doing their job, (and Mr. Abhisit was very lenient, in my opinion, in his approach to the 2010 riots), it is on an evil path.

    The Reds are pursuing evil tactics in an effort to perpetrate evil goals.

    I grieve for Thailand.

    Long Live His Majesty.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Russki Top · 6 years ago
      Excellent synopsis. I wish you were just polemicizign, but form the bit I keep up with you've pretty well nailed it.
      Michael, outstanding piece. My limited time with Thai government employees, soldiers, and civilians gibes with what you've written and experienced here. They take their democracy and their royalty very seriously. They also take personal responsibility equally as seriously. I hope they can get through this crisis with a minimum of pain. Were Thaksin to return and face the music, much of this could be put to rest.
      Thank you again for your reporting and your willingness to call it from the ground view.
      Stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nazir · 6 years ago
    nicely written Michael, and i miss your Afghanistan photography
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Aranyabhuti · 6 years ago
    Thank you for sharing Truth.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Marybeauty · 6 years ago
    This considerate message might not change anything they did and will do with Abhisit but the intention was there. Really appreciated your honesty and courage.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    HP · 6 years ago
    I've lived in BKK for 4 years now lived through the red shirt protest living 500 meters from the battle zone ( if I may say it) and I saw exactly what you say, was in the center of things almost daily with my camera ( though I'm not a journalist) and have enough to show why this was never something the army created. Having a protest and what the red shirts did were very different, and shielding it behind innocent civilians and children were cowardly to say it mildly! I ain't no supporter of eithe party but I beleive the government acted like any government in power would and should! Maybe they should have acted earlier! Any death is sad but no group can be allowed to take over a city no matter what color they are! I wish only the best for this beautiful county and hope reds and yellows find a way to move forward and avoid such instances being repeated.
    Long Live the King!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Yon author · 6 years ago
    Thank you for the thoughtful comments. My webmaster blocked one comment due to wild profanity. Otherwise, comments are only blocked when they are advertisements, pages of unrelated text, or simply vulgar or gratuitous ad hominem by any standard.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    leyla · 6 years ago
    Thank you for getting the truth out and God Bless you this coming New Year!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scotch7 · 6 years ago
    Delighted to recognize the Dusit Thani in your photo. Stayed there in the '80s. Many happy memories of architecture and staff. Sad to read it took fire, but I'm confident it will be repaired gracefully.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Skip · 6 years ago
    Very well written, nice to see a journalist with morals and honesty. There are so few left around the planet. Makes me want to visit Thailand for an extended stay.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 6 years ago
    I recall visiting the Dusit Thani in the '69-'70 timeframe in a brief respite from the gunline. Think the disco there was called the Panda room or the Boom Boom room. Latter might have been a different mission.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    F Thomas · 6 years ago
    Politics can turn ugly in places such as Thailand. Michael, your coverage I'm sure is factual and to the point.

    Happy New Year!
    Stay Safe - Keep your head down and rear end lower!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chaik · 6 years ago
    Thank you and let the god-forsaken truth be told! We, the Thai people have to live with the twisted lies by the gov. controlled media day in and day out. Thank you again from all of the Thai people who want the world to know the real truth.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    DD · 6 years ago
    dude, you have balls of titanium.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    wolfemanjack · 6 years ago
    "In India, if you want to swim with crocodiles, the Indian Police might say, 'I wouldn’t do that if I were you,' but then they will watch you go. Later that day, Indian police will dutifully alert the US Embassy that you were eaten. Indians do not protect you from yourself. Thailand is similar. I love it. ***
    Personal responsibility is real here. You are free. All consequences are on you. *** You are free to wade into a firefight or to pet crocodiles. Do not whine when you get bitten or shot. *** We say that we want freedom, but Americans do not live in freedom. We Americans seem to spend every waking hour plotting how to shackle ourselves. Freedom is becoming an empty word in America. ***
    America does not want fewer laws. Many Americans want more laws."

    Sad but true (the part about America).

    I don't know much about Thai politics but thanks for the balanced reporting.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    RR · 6 years ago
    Thank you for your covering the truth. As a Thai, I wish Thai journalists are as honest and truthful as you are. We all need to hear the truth.
    Have a happy and safe year.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    por pae · 6 years ago
    can we use this in court? if summoned, will you testify?

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