Thai Officials Want To Silence Critics, Scholar Charged With Insulting Monarchy

Jan 16, 2018
Originally published on January 16, 2018 7:11 am
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A prominent Buddhist scholar in Thailand has been charged with insulting the monarchy over comments he made about a battle that occurred over 400 years ago. On Wednesday, the scholar will find out if the military-led government intends to prosecute. He could face 15 years in jail. Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok on the Thai government's increasing use of lese majeste - laws to silence critics.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The battle in question is a popular story in Thai history, especially with the military, immortalized in print and in film like this one - a story of a Thai king slaying a Burmese crown prince in a duel, riding elephants.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LEGEND OF KING NARESUAN 5," ELEPHANT TRUMPETING)

SULLIVAN: The problem, says Sulak Sivaraksa and many other scholars, is that it may not have happened that way, that the prince may have been felled by a bullet or killed some other way - maybe not by the king. And Sulak said so at his seminar, and that was enough to get him charged.

SULAK SIVARAKSA: In this country, myths become truth. And I question the myths, so I may be punished 15 years in prison.

SULLIVAN: Ironically, the world-renowned scholar considers himself a staunch royalist, but that hasn't kept him from getting in trouble before.

SULAK: This not the first case. They charged me so many cases already. The Buddha said we should speak the truth, and in this country full of half-truths, I denounced the half-truths openly all my life.

SULLIVAN: The 85-year-old says if he has to go to prison and spend his hundredth birthday in jail, he'll do so joyfully. That's humor, he says, not sarcasm. He's about the only one finding any humor here.

JAMES GOMEZ: To prosecute a scholar for comments he made about a battle that took place more than four centuries ago is patently absurd.

SULLIVAN: James Gomez is Amnesty International's director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

GOMEZ: This case reminds us how ugly it is in Thailand where Thai authorities increasingly are using the lese majeste law as a tool for suppression.

DAVID STRECKFUSS: This reflects a change that's happened over the last 10 years in Thailand.

SULLIVAN: David Streckfuss literally wrote the book on lese majeste. It's called "Truth On Trial In Thailand."

STRECKFUSS: Ever since the coup in 2006, the number of cases has skyrocketed. And so there's been hundreds charged - hundreds, or maybe even thousands charged - or investigated, at least - and hundreds jailed for this, with a very high conviction rate.

SULLIVAN: Streckfuss says this is probably the No. 1 human rights issue facing Thailand today.

STRECKFUSS: It creates such a chilling effect on the entire society and locks down any sort of movement or discussion about political institutions and the future of Thailand. And it has been used more, to greater effect, with greater coverage until it really locked down any hope of democracy being able to grow in Thailand in the near future.

SULLIVAN: As for Sulak Sivaraksa, it seems unlikely he'll go to prison. He's too well-known, too well-respected in Thai society and abroad, unlike many others who've been convicted of lese majeste, like the 31-year-old sight-impaired woman jailed earlier this month for reposting an article critical of the monarchy on her Facebook page. Still, Sulak will show up at military court on Wednesday at 10 a.m. to hear his fate.

SULAK: I am pretty certain in my heart and my head that they will drop my case. But if they ask me to apologize, I will never do that.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME FEAT. EMANCIPATOR'S "PASSIM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.