Renowned Buddhist scholar faces jail for ‘criticizing’ Thai monarchy

Sulak Sivaraksa, center, walks to a military court on Dec. 7, 2017, in Bangkok to find out whether the military prosecutor proceeded with the indictment against him on lèse-majesté. A Thai military court has delayed a decision on whether to prosecute the prominent historian and social critic, who suggested that a famed duel on elephant-back won by a Thai king against a Burmese prince 400 years ago may not actually have happened. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe) (Caption amended by RNS)

(RNS) — Sulak Sivaraksa, an internationally known Buddhist social activist and scholar, is facing possible jail time for questioning the outcome of a battle fought from the backs of elephants 400 years ago.

Sivaraksa, 85, made the remarks at a Bangkok university history conference in October 2014. Referring to a 16th-century battle immortalized in Thai culture as a triumph and point of national pride, he warned academics “not to easily believe in things. Otherwise, you will fall prey to propaganda.”

Sivaraksa was arrested last October and charged with “lèse-majesté,” or defaming the monarchy, a law that bans criticizing the Thai royal family and comes with a 15-year prison sentence.

On Wednesday (Jan. 17) he will appear before a military court set to decide on whether to prosecute him. There have been more than 100 lèse-majesté arrests since 2014, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.

“In this country, myth becomes truth and I questioned the myth,” Sivaraksa told NPR. ” … The Buddha said we should speak the truth and in this country full of half-truths, I denounced the half-truths all my life.”

Thai history holds that the 16th-century battle was won by the Thai king Naresuan, who killed his Burmese prince opponent in a duel conducted on elephants. But Sivaraksa and other scholars have suggested the prince may have been killed another way, perhaps by gunfire.

The Thai military, who control the Buddhist nation, hold Naresuan as their particular hero. Questioning his victory is like questioning George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River.

“This case reminds us how ugly it is in Thailand, where Thai authorities increasingly are using the lèse-majesté law for suppression,” James Gomez, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told NPR. He called the charges against Sivaraksa “ridiculous.”

Sivaraksa, who founded the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, has aggravated Thai military authorities before but has never been jailed. Some observers think it is unlikely he will be jailed this time because he is too well-known and doing so would likely bring international censure to the country.

“If they ask me to apologize, I will never do that,” Sivaraksa told NPR.

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • “In America … the people consume too much natural resources. I think Americans must also understand this is structural violence. The top people in the big companies earn far too much, whereas the common laborers earn too little. I think … this structural violence is also linked with cultural violence. … I think one ought to learn to practice right livelihood.”
    – Sulak Sivaraksa, interview at DemocracyNow! by Amy Goodman.

  • I have relatives in Thailand, and we have seen how Thailand has changed for the worse since the military coups over the past decade. I love visiting Thai Buddhist historical sites and seeing the interesting temple architecture…But the military government has now created a Buddhist-monarchy, with the current and previous Kings as god-like figures…whose actions cannot be questioned. All this is being done to avoid having a real democracy.

    The wealthy elite pushed religion while getting richer, sound familiar? And now the government is considering making Thai Buddhism the official state religion. A perfect example of religion gone awry and causing harm, as usual !!

  • How backward to criminally prosecute someone for criticizing the rulers! They should do what we do in the US: use Twitter to destroy the person’s life.

  • Lese majeste is an actual offense in Thailand, and has been for a long, long time. King Bhumibol was king for nearly 70 years. The first time I went to Thailand, back in1989, several thai friends said “very cautiously” that he had lost touch with his people, and that his family was now somewhat corrupt. But even then, they hoped that it wasn’t really true, and they were very circumspect about saying that they thought the crown prince was not quite right.

  • Ah yes another victim of mainstream media, yeah, you. Because, you’ve forgotten what the US tried to do to Thailand 2 summers ago. Stirring up anti-government sentiments, violence. Why? Because Thailand was getting friendly with China. Yankees No Like, see.

    I have my suspicions about this guy, Sulak Sivaraksa. But I’ll leave it there for now as-is. Yesterday’s quote about his slap-on-the-wrist on America’s “structural violence”, kinda threw me off.

    My take on Thailand is it’s a country created by endless coup d’etat – many of which were masterminded by the US. Question is, is Sulak Sivaraksa being puffed up by America?

  • No, I am not victim of the media…I lived and worked in Thailand on and off for twenty years — I have a home in Thailand, a wife who was originally from Thailand, kids who speak Thai and have dual citizenship and lots of in-laws in Thailand, some who have to live in fear,

    Yes, the US has supported right-wing Thai governments, Obama was an improvement, he opposed the coups…Trump doesn’t care and he supports the authoritarian Thai leadership…a change for the worse.

    Combine a corrupt military, a cultish monarchy and an oligarchy that fears democracy…each using a karmic religion to justify their leadership and smother opposition…that explains Thailand. It’s that way we may be heading here in the US.

  • Just mentioning King Bhumibol on Facebook in Thailand without giving him a compliment…can get you arrested.

  • I agree 100% with Sulak Sivaraska. Is Thailand really a democracy? Britain is also a Monarchy but it is fully democratic. So is Japan. Let the Thai government take some lessons in governance from both these nations. This is a symptom of regression and not progression.

  • Not sure about the role of religion here.

    On one side, there is the (military + monarchy + oligarchy) combination that uses Buddhism. On the other side, there is Sulak Sivaraksha, who is a Buddhist too.

    Are the two sides propounding different denominations of Buddhism, in the same way as the Pilgrim Fathers differed from other denominations of Christianity? This was not clear from the article.

    All the article says is that there was a battle in the 16th century. A Burmese prince died in that battle. What caused the death of the Burmese prince? Dueling was the cause of death, according to the military + monarchy + oligarchy combination. Gunfire was the cause of death, according to Sivaraksha.

    The cause of death is too small a detail to be the principal bone of contention. The cause of death can only be a trigger to start a bigger debate. But what is that bigger debate about? Different sects of Buddhism?

    What role is Buddhism playing in this article?

    Why doesn’t the article speak of making Buddhism into a state religion? You (Damien Priestly) speak of it, but the article doesn’t. What is the article missing here? Is it your argument that making Buddhism into a state religion helps the military + monarchy + oligarchy combination, but not Sivaraksha? This argument–if that is indeed your intention–is different from the dispute about the cause of death.

  • “A bright person” that you are, is out “to destroy the person’s life”. Yours, obviously, as by the looks of things.

  • Sawadikap!

    My all-time favorite movie, “The Deer Hunter” was filmed in Thailand.

    So many Americans grew up in Bangkok.

    Female Thai vocalizing made it into Tangerine Dream’s musical texturing palette.

    What else …

    Pattaya was best in 1970s.

    Met a Thai couple at an Ivy League uni. “Gonna get married?” No, they said, because parents had to approve of their financial success first. If yes, then maybe.

    Apropos article at hand: Thai cinemas can’t start rolling the films unless after everybody kowtows to King Bumibol (sp?) on the silver screen.

    Sawadikap! (The ending to “Casablanca” comes to mind.) You, yeah you – make my day. Thanks, ‘bruh!

  • Don’t start, I can just hear it now. But hey, man, didn’t you know Princess Diana did commit the heinous “lèse-majesté … defaming the monarchy” of the British Empire? Sure you do because you know what happened to her, right?

    Sulak Sivaraska. Diana Frances Spencer. No biggie in difference.

    I love Thailand. UK not so much.

  • I didn’t fall for it, see, because you’ve always been flakey – albeit “a bright person [out] to destroy the person’s life” – ouch! For instead of /s meaning /sarcasm, you could’ve meant /serious. Flakey that you are, it’s possible, then, likely even, you were being sarcastic about being serious. So like I said, I ain’t falling for your stupid games no more. As far as I’m concerned, Arbustin & Spuddie are like the Laurel & Hardie around here.

  • Flakey? If that’s what I have to be called for calling you out on your bullsh/t, then that’s fine. /s means one thing and one thing only: sarcasm. This is easily googleable. Not sure why you would think I’d need to note in a comment that I’m serious, as it should be the default and I’ve never done it before. But you also apparently think the NYPD engineered the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, killing thousands, including over 20 NYPD officers, just so responding officers could get cancer while cleaning up the site and thus receive 75% of their salary as pension instead of 50%. So call me flakey all you want.

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