I’ve previously written in these pages about Thailand’s restrictive lese-majesty laws, which have remained unchanged since 1908. Most recently, I highlighted the case of the Thai student activists Patiwat Saraiyaem and Pornthip Munkong (LR, December 2015), who were each sentenced to two and a half years in prison for having staged and performed in a play, The Wolf Bride (‘Jao Sao Ma Pa’), about a fictional monarch and his adviser. Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code states that ‘whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years’.
The latest victim of this harsh legislation is veteran writer and activist Sulak Sivaraksa, who is facing trial for a speech he gave at an academic meeting held at Thammasat University on 5 October 2014. Sivaraksa, a pensioner aged eighty-five, is a prominent social critic and the author of at least a hundred books published in Thai and English, addressing Thai society and culture. These include Conflict, Culture, Change: Engaged Buddhism in a Globalizing World, Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society and Loyalty Demands Dissent: Autobiography of an Engaged Buddhist.
On 9 October 2017, Sivaraksa was brought before a military tribunal and informed that a three-year investigation into allegations of lese-majesty had been concluded. He was released the same day and told that military prosecutors will decide at a hearing on 7 December 2017 whether to indict him. Should the case proceed, Sivaraksa faces up to fifteen years in prison.
In his speech, ‘Thai History: The Construction and Deconstruction’, Sivaraksa criticised King Naresuan, who ruled Thailand some four hundred years ago, for being cruel. He also questioned whether a 16th-century elephant battle between Naresuan and the Burmese crown prince Mingyi Swa had actually occurred. At the time, an epic film about the life of Naresuan was being promoted by the military junta. Sivaraksa reportedly urged the audience ‘not to easily believe in things. Otherwise they will fall prey to propaganda.’ Naresuan is regarded as a national hero by the Thai military and the country’s National Armed Forces Day marks the date of the battle. The initial charges against Sivaraksa arose from a complaint made on 16 October 2014 by two lieutenant generals.
In 1989, Sivaraksa, a well-known advocate of ‘engaged Buddhism’, which ‘integrates the practice of Buddhism with social action for a healthy, just, and peaceful world’, cofounded the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. Over the years, Sivaraksa has helped establish many civil society organisations and been involved in various cultural initiatives. He has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1995 he received the Right Livelihood Award and in 2011 he was presented with the Niwano Peace Prize, awarded to those who promote peace through interreligious cooperation. Twice, in 1976 and again in 1991, Sivaraksa was forced to flee the country, on each occasion spending a year in self-imposed exile. Sivaraksa claims dissent is an essential part of his loyalty to his nation.
Sivaraksa has faced charges of lese-majesty on several previous occasions in relation to his speeches and writings. On these occasions, either he was acquitted or the case was dropped. The current charges against Sivaraksa are particularly bizarre because they do not relate to the ruling monarch, but refer to a king who died as long ago as 1605.
Thailand’s lese-majesty statutes are among the strictest insult laws in the world. PEN and other lobby groups have long campaigned for the Thai authorities to amend the Criminal Code, in particular the articles that criminalise defamation and insult, to ensure that it meets Thailand’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression. The UN has repeatedly stated that criminal defamation and insult laws are incompatible with international standards on free expression. In 2011, Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, called on Thailand to reform its lese-majesty laws. He observed: ‘The threat of a long prison sentence and vagueness of what kinds of expression constitute defamation, insult, or threat to the monarchy, encourage self-censorship and stifle important debates on matters of public interest, thus putting in jeopardy the right to freedom of opinion and expression.’ They are also not in line with Articles 9 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a state party.
Readers might like to send appeals calling for the charges against writer and activist Sulak Sivaraksa to be dropped immediately and unconditionally; urging the authorities to amend the Criminal Code and decriminalise lese-majesty, defamation and insult in order to protect freedom of expression; and seeking assurances that the authorities will not subject civilians to military court proceedings.
Appeals to be addressed to:
General Prayut Chan-o-cha
Royal Thai Government, Government House
1 Pitsanulok Road, Dusit
Bangkok 10300, Thailand
Fax: +66 2282 5131
Minister of Justice
Fax: +66 2953 0503
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand
Fax: +66 2643 5320
His Excellency Ambassador Pisanu Suvanajata
Royal Thai Embassy
29–30 Queen’s Gate, London SW7 5JB
Fax: +44 20 7823 7492