Unable to Confront Present or Examine Past Means What Future for Thailand?

Sulak Sivaraksa, accused of lese majeste over comments about a 16th century elephant battle, meets Oct. 9 with military prosecutors.

It was painful watching famed social critic struggle Sulak Sivaraksa walk haltingly with his cane. More painful was seeing the 84-year-old man, wracked by advancing years, do so to visit the military prosecutors deciding whether he defamed the monarchy by casting doubt on popular accounts of a 400-year-old event.

By publicly suggesting several years ago that an elephant duel between King Naraesuan and his Burmese rival may not have taken place as written into the national psyche, Sulak tried to excavate and improve our understanding of the past.

For this he faces 15 years in prison under the anachronistic and draconian lese majeste law, which is specifically written only to protect the current reigning monarch, queen, heir apparent and regent – not a king who ruled and died four centuries ago.

What will become of Thai history, the study of history, and ordinary people’s understanding of the past if we cannot questions historical events that have to do with a past king or queen? Should we stop calling it history altogether and refer to it as illuminated texts only for rote memorization and recitation without question? There can be no study of history if some questions about the past cannot be asked. We will truly not know ourselves if we cannot gaze back critically.

This is the excess of the lese majeste law under its ever widening interpretation. Call it LM Plus and don’t confuse it with the cigarette brand. Is it not enough that speaking critically of the reigning monarch is illegal, which already makes it difficult to describe the present state of Thai society in any meaningful way?

Listen to royalist songs or read widespread texts praising the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and one cannot fail to notice the common ticks of describing love for “our king” as held by “all Thais.”

There is no space to even acknowledge Thais who think differently about the institution or allow themselves to express themselves. You either have to flee the kingdom and never return or face a jail term here for expressing something otherwise.

It is as if these people have no voice, and all Thais must pretend to think alike.

We’re ill-equipped to improve society when we cannot talk about the present critically. And now some people think we shouldn’t be able to talk about the past as well.

It’s a sad state for Thailand. This is a country where many people do not want to look straight in the mirror. They want comfortable stories that are tear-jerking or push safe emotional buttons to reinforce a preferred image. Anything that disrupts that prevalent narrative must be censored, silenced or made illegal.

What’s the hope for Thailand, for its history, its future, given the situation?

While waiting for the legal papers to be processed, Sulak joked to a senior army officer who entered the room to receive him that he might be celebrating his 100th birthday in jail if he’s locked up this time. It may sound sad to hear such a joke, tragic even, but I couldn’t help feel even sadder for Thai people who are content with having their right to talk about their society and its past undermined.