Thursday, March 29, 2007

Si Fueris Romae, Romano Vivito More

The title of this entry, "si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more" translates as to "if in Rome, live in the Roman manner", but most people forget the rest of the original Latin aphorism: "si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi" which means, "if you are elsewhere, live as they do elsewhere".

Which brings us to the tragicomic story of 57 year old Oliver Jufer, a Swiss expat who has spent the last ten years of his life in Thailand. After a savage bender, Herr Jufer got busted by the police in Chiang Mai for spraypainting over public portraits of the King of Thailand, HRH Bhumibol Adulyadej. When Jufer sobered up, he found himself facing five counts of lèse majesté. If convicted, Jufer faced up to twenty years in a Thai prison, so when he came to his senses, he sensibly came to a plea agreement whereby his sentence was reduced to 10 years after admitting guilt. In Thailand the idea that someone could criticize (much less insult) the king is regarded as an unthinkably offensive, and criminal act.

Now, before we begin, let me say that I do not regard his royal highness a dictator in the regular sense of the word, lacking, as he does, unlimited political powers in any legally defined way. He has not usurped authority from legitimately elected leaders, and in fact, he has been the only political force capable of maintaining what little legitimate political stability Thailand has enjoyed in the past 100 years. Thais have a genuine love and respect for their king that any tyrant on earth can only envy from afar.

What I'm trying to get at is that I have been somewhat remiss about covering those handful of dictators who rule as monarchs, benevolent or otherwise. Should Mswati III of Swaziland be lumped in with the likes of Turkmenbashi? Is Jigme Wangchuk of of Bhutan a dictator in the same sense as Robert Mugabe, even though his majesty has even greater political powers than Mugabe does? Why is it we can regard Oliver Jufer as a boorish criminal for spray painting over a portrait of the king, but we regain our sense of outrage when North Korea punishes people for political statements deemed insulting to the Dear Leader? What's the practical difference between an absolute monarch and a dictator beyond political legitimacy?

UPDATE: His royal highness has pardoned Oliver Jufer, as had been expected. The pardon comes with a catch: Jufer has to leave Thailand. I would imagine this is for his own safety, given the way Thais feel about their king.