Lese-majeste in Thailand is dead. Long live lese-majeste. Palming a deck of cards in the courtyard of his teak house in Bangkok that doubles as a bookstore, Sulak Sivaraksa doesn’t look like a threat to the fabric of Thai society.
But for nearly 50 years, a succession of military dictatorships has thought otherwise.
Sulak, 85, was forced into exile twice and had his life threatened and bookstore burnt in decades of political upheaval.
He has also faced five serious prosecutions for lese-majeste – royal defamation.
Each punishable by up to 15 years in jail – and escaped without a single conviction.
“I hope I am not prosecuted again,” Sulak says. “I cannot keep my mouth shut, that is my problem.”
Throughout it all, the devoted Buddhist, scholar, publisher, grassroots activist and occasional protester has remained a monarchist.
He believes the lese-majeste law, Article 112, should be abolished for the sake of keeping the royal family strong.
He also speaks highly of the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, who he says is responsible for his freedom. And also for no new lese-majeste charges being laid against anyone in a year.
“The present king is impatient, he said ‘no more’,” Sulak says.
Thailand has the world’s harshest lese-majeste law, and record sentences have been handed down since the 2014 coup.
Countries ignoring junta requests
Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was pardoned after receiving a three-year sentence in 2009 for 12 lines in a novel deemed to defame the then-crown prince.
More recently the ruling junta has tried to persuade New Zealand to extradite suspects to no avail.
Dr Patrick Jory, senior lecturer in South-east Asian history at the University of Queensland, says the frequency of its use and severity of the punishment set it apart from similar laws in Europe, which were rarely invoked, or Saudi Arabia.
He suspects the coming election and Vajiralongkorn’s coronation, on a date yet to be set, have both played a part in the year-long moratorium on new charges.
“It spikes when there’s a political crisis, particularly one in which the monarchy is involved,” Jory says.
“One of the arguments made, even by monarchists, is that the lese-majeste law is abused by people for ulterior purposes, or political purposes.”
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Sunai Phasuk says despite the changes under the new king, there has been no improvement in freedom of expression.
“While there has been a sharp drop in lese-majeste prosecutions, Thai authorities have switched to using other laws. Such as the Computer-Related Crime Act and sedition law, to prosecute critics of the monarchy,” Sunai says.
The most recent, and most notorious, case brought against Sulak was for questioning the propaganda surrounding an elephant battle King Naresuan led against the Burmese army in the late 16th century.
He used a lecture at a university to suggest scholars look at the firsthand accounts from Burmese and Persian sources instead of relying on the Thai army’s version of events, which have been popularised in film.
“All I said was Thai history is different from mythology,” Sulak says.
He was the 93rd of 94 people to be charged under Article 112 since the junta seized power in 2014, according to the legal advocacy group iLaw.
Existing cases continue to proceed; the next due for a hearing involves a factory worker who clicked “like” on a social media post about the late king’s dog.
One young activist was recently jailed for sharing a BBC Thai biography of Vajiralongkorn, while another wanted on the same charge was this month granted political asylum in South Korea.
Like most others, Sulak’s case had been bound for a secret military tribunal instead of open court.
However, his caught widespread attention when rights groups such as Amnesty and PEN International campaigned on his behalf.
The initial complaint was lodged by junior officers, but Sulak is convinced it was prosecuted at the behest of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who he calls “mediocre”.
“He’s the worst of the dictators we’ve had,” Sulak says, before clarifying that he thinks Prayuth is the least competent.
“Sarit [Thanarat, who ruled from 1959-63] was the worst as a dictator, yet he knew how to run a country. He appointed a lot of technocrats.
“Prayuth’s afraid of me. He’s a hypocrite. He used this case to silence me. Every dictator hated me. Suchinda [Kraprayoon, whose brief tenure in 1992 was marked by a massacre] was very bright compared with Prayut. He tried to kill me.”
It’s no exaggeration: Suchinda’s troops blockaded a sympathetic embassy 1991 where Sulak sought refuge.
He escaped via a side alley, through a series of safe houses over the border to Laos and on to an Aeroflot jet bound for Europe.
Among those who helped was Sombath Somphone and his wife Ng Shui Meng; Sombath disappeared at a police checkpoint in Vientiane on December 15, 2012, and has not been seen since.
Born into wealth and a well-connected Chinese family and receiving higher education in England, Sulak’s first prominent role in the maelstrom of Thai politics came in the late 1960s.
He started Social Science Review, a landmark publication that was often critical of the government, although also featured work from princes and nobility.
Intended to spark discussion, it is also said to have helped inspire the 1973 student rebellion that briefly ended military rule.
Three years later when the military launched a massacre at Thammasat University, Sulak was overseas.
Friends were killed and his bookstore was razed. He stayed in exile for two years, making connections that would prove useful in his social activism and with figures who would come to his aid when charges were laid.
The help would go both ways: one of Sulak’s non-government organisations worked in Myanmar in the darkest days of military rule after the 1988 crackdown.
For all the help from lawyers and appeals from international agencies, it was a 90-minute audience with Vajiralongkorn which solved Sulak’s latest legal woes.
“He has a bad public image,” he acknowledges.
“He’s shy, but he’s very knowledgeable. He’s very concerned with the survival of the monarchy, and very concerned about whether this country could be really democratic.
“I think the king is wise. He wants the monarchy to be more open and more transparent. He has gained a lot of confidence [since he assumed power].”
Opening the institution up for criticism would only strengthen it, in Sulak’s view. It should be abolished “if they have the political will, but I don’t think they have”.
A compromise would involve lowering the minimum and maximum sentences and raising the threshold for prosecution; now anyone can lodge a claim the police must take seriously.
Jory says the new king is very unpopular, particularly compared to his father, and with “too many skeletons” in the monarchy’s closet he does not expect the lese-majeste law to be reformed any time soon.
“Everyone’s really gone underground … [but] the monarchy has lots and lots of enemies. This issue in the medium term won’t go away.”
Early comments from the new army chief, the son of the armed forces commander who helped Suchinda stage the 1991 coup, give little comfort to reformers.
General Apirat Kongsompong suggested anti-monarchists had mental disorders and had no place in Thailand: “I will protect the monarchy with everything I have, it’s the army’s duty.”
Sulak has little time for the men in uniform.
“Thai generals think this country is the centre of the universe and they have a dim view of their neighbours because of this belief Thailand was never colonised. They view their neighbours as inferior, and it’s not so.”
He is not expecting much to change with the election expected in February.
“A lot of young people are dedicating themselves to politics. They want to stand for the election, and I am afraid they will be brokenhearted. The army will not lose its grip.” – BrisbaneTimes