The Thai military court has postponed their decision to indict the scholar and prominent socially engaged Buddhist, Sulak Sivaraksa, on charges of criminal lèse-majesté, or defaming the monarchy, for claiming that a historic duel on elephantback never happened. Since the military coup in Thailand in 2014, the lèse-majesté law has been used regularly to silence critics of the military junta.

Sivaraksa appeared before the public prosecutor in Bangkok on December 7 expecting to hear if the military court would move forward and formally charge him with defamation or dismiss his case. He was ordered instead to return to court on January 17.

“At least I’m a free man for one more month,” Sivaraksa told Tricycle in a telephone interview shortly after leaving court.  

The 84-year-old Sivaraksa is accused of defaming the monarchy because of his historical analysis of a 16th-century battle. At a history symposium at Thammasat University in October 2015, Sivaraksa questioned if King Naresuan had led his soldiers to victory in an elephant duel against the Burmese, or if the story was part of royal mythmaking. King Naresuan, who died in 1605, is considered a hero by the Thai military today.

sulak sivaraksa outside of court, surrounded by press and photographers
Sulak Sivaraksa outside of military court in Thailand on December 7 | Photo courtesy of Sulak Sivaraksa

Sivaraksa reportedly advised the academic audience “not to easily believe in anything, otherwise you will fall prey to propaganda.”

The crime of lèse-majesté in Thailand forbids criticism of the king, queen, crown prince, or regent, and is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The crime, which lies somewhere between treason and blasphemy, is usually reserved for defamation of royal individuals who are alive, but in recent years has been extended to include deceased royalty. Since the military coup in 2014, the lèse-majesté law has been used regularly to silence critics of the military junta.

The lèse-majesté case that has garnered the most attention since then is that of the student and activist Jatupat Boonpattaraksa, who last August was given a reduced prison sentence of two and a half years for posting a BBC profile of the current King Vajralongkorn on Facebook that the crown found offensive. Thousands of other people shared the same article.

Since the military coup in Thailand in 2014, the lèse-majesté law has been used regularly to silence critics of the military junta. The International Federation for Human Rights has recorded more than 100 lèse-majesté arrests since the 2014 coup.

“The junta’s abusive use of the lèse-majesté law has reached a new height of absurdity when a prominent scholar is charged with a criminal offense for questioning the occurrence of a 16th-century battle,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “Academic freedom and free speech in Thailand will suffer devastating blows if the trial against Sulak [Sivaraksa] proceeds.”

International civil rights activists consider the application of lèse-majesté in Thailand as arbitrary, and because anyone can file a complaint against someone else, journalists often draw parallels to the Salem witch trials in the United States.  

“The police rarely dismiss lèse-majesté complaints because they themselves are afraid that they would then be complicit in the crime of defamation,” says David Streckfuss, an independent scholar living in Thailand and author of Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-majesté.

Sivaraksa is no stranger to lèse-majesté. He has been charged on at least four previous occasions but has been acquitted each time. Sivaraksa’s rebukes of the Thai monarchy have brought public notoriety to his name, especially in the 1980s and 90s. He is seen in Thailand by the mainstream as a thorn in the side of not only the monarchy but also other pillars of society, including senior Buddhist monks and political leaders.

Despite his criticism of Thai society, Sivaraksa has long asserted that he is loyal to his country, the buddhadharma, and the monarchy, but that his “loyalty demands dissent.” For his speeches and writings, Sivaraksa has been exiled from Thailand on two occasions (in 1976–1977 and 1991–1992), jailed and harassed, and repeatedly subjected to criminal prosecution, but never convicted of a crime.

The current legal battle is the latest in the decades-long struggle between Sivaraksa and the Thai establishment. Sivaraksa will return to the military court on January 17 to hear if they will proceed with an indictment.