Sulak Sivaraksa, the 84-year-old scholar and outspoken socially engaged Buddhist, wrote in a public letter today that the latest case against him for criminal lèse-majesté—defamation of the monarchy—has been dropped.
Sivaraksa was charged in October 2014 after he questioned the historical accounts of a 16th-century royal duel on elephantback between the Siamese King Naresuan and Burmese Crown Prince Mingyi Swa. The Thai government and military promote King Naresuan as a patriotic hero based upon his victory in this battle.
Western governments, non-governmental organizations, and human rights campaigners have pressured Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Ministry of Justice, and the military public prosecutor not to proceed with the criminal charges against Sivaraksa.
“I wish to thank you sincerely for your campaign to free me from the unjust law of lèse-majesté against me,” Sulak wrote in an email to the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB).
Back in October 2014, Sivaraksa advised a group of historians at Thammasat University in Bangkok to “not easily believe in what you are told. Otherwise, then you fall prey to propaganda.” Sivaraksa’s suggestions that the official account of King Naresuan’s royal elephant battle is likely a myth was the basis for the lèse-majesté charge, which was being prosecuted in Bangkok’s military court.
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.
“To prosecute a scholar for comments he made about a battle that took place more than four centuries ago would be patently absurd. This case is an ugly reminder of the Thai authorities’ increasing use of the lèse majesté law as a tool of suppression,” wrote James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Sulak has for decades called to abolish the criminal lèse-majesté, known as Article 112. He has been charged with lèse-majesté on four previous occasions (1984, 1991, 2006, and 2008) but has been acquitted each time.
Sulak’s longtime colleague Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of the Upaya Zen Center and a member of INEB’s executive committee, responded in an email today to the news of the charges being dropped by writing, “Sulak’s vision and work for the well-being of others has touched all of us. It would have been a tragedy for him to be imprisoned for speaking truth to power.”
Since the military coup in 2014, Article 112 has been used regularly to silence critics of the military junta and monarchy. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in June 2017 that they were “deeply troubled” by the increase in prosecutions and severity in sentencing since 2014, noting that the rate of conviction since the coup increased to 90 percent from a 76 percent rate between 2011 and 2013.
Despite an increase in lèse-majesté charges and convictions in the last year, Sivaraksa told Tricycle in a phone interview that he believes his exoneration of the latest charges “could indicate a positive step forward” toward abolishing Article 112.
There has not been any official statement from the Thai Ministry of Justice or military public prosecutors, and it may not come until mid January, when Sivaraksa has been ordered to appear before the military court.
“In the many years I have known Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa, he has clearly held to a principle that ‘loyalty demands dissent,’” Rev. Hozan Alan Senauke, vice-abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center, told Tricycle. “Too often Ajahn Sulak’s run-in with Thailand’s Article 112 law, lèse-majesté, has been the government’s attempt to suppress his dissent from state corruption and repression of the Siamese people. Ajahn Sulak’s friends and students around the world celebrate his courage and—today—his freedom.”
Sulak concluded his message to INEB by writing, “H.M. The King has graciously advised the Prime Minister to instruct the military public prosecutors not to pursue the case any further. I am therefore a free man legally. I shall be more careful with my speech and action, but will always speak truthfully, especially to the powers that be.”
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