Explainer: Thailand's Lese Majeste Law and Why Sulak Sivaraksa Was Not Charged

Originally published on Channel NewsAsia on January 18, 2018

84-year scholar and social activist Sulak Sivaraksa escapes prosecution under Thailand's lese majeste law. He was charged for questioning the historical accuracy of an event that took place way back in the 16th century - or not. Here's my explainer about the law, the charge and why Sulak will not face trial.

TRANSCRIPT

It doesn’t happen very often that a case involving allegations of insulting Thailand’s monarchy is being dropped, but that is exactly what happened to Sulak Sivaraksa. A Thai military court decided not to prosecute the 84-year-old veteran scholar due to lack of evidence. 

The case stems from a university seminar in 2014 about a historic event in 1593, where Siamese King Naresuan defeated the Burmese Crown Prince Mingyi Swa in a formal duel on elephants - that is the prevailing Thai historic account that is still being taught today. 

But there are no other accounts that confirm this has actually taken place like this, so that’s why Mr. Sulak - like many other historians before him - are questioning this what is now considered a highly-celebrated Thai legend, commemorated by the Thai army on their Armed Forces Day.

Thailand’s lese majeste law states "whoever defames, insults, or threatens the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent" can be punished with up to 15 years in prison, so it doesn’t cover past and deceased kings. But it the law has been often more loosely interpreted to defend the royal establishment.

Rights groups have criticized this law as harsh and draconian and the number of lese majeste cases skyrocketed in the past decade, estimated in the 1000s, with a very high conviction rate. 

This is not the first time Sulak Sivaraksa has faced such a charge before - it is actually his forth. But the reason why he has not been prosecuted is not only that he proclaims himself to be a royalist, but he also enjoys wide respect and support not only here in Thailand, but also around the world. So basically he’s too well-known, too famous. A trial would have sparked huge public outcry and condemnation.

That is a privilege that other defendants do not have.

Since the military coup of 2014, it is estimated that at least 94 people have been prosecuted and 43 sentenced. Just earlier this month, a blind woman was jailed for reposting an article critical of the monarchy on Facebook.

Saksith Saiyasombut, Channel NewsAsia, Bangkok