BANGKOK — For 100 days, the old man will wear white, even at home. He will observe basic Buddhist precepts and avoid meat, all in honor of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away two weeks ago.
This is Sulak Sivaraksa, however, a noted royalist scholar for whom criticism is inseparable from his loyalty to the monarchy, a position that has gotten him into trouble time and again.
In fact much of what Sulak had to say during the course of a Wednesday interview about the legacy of King Bhumibol cannot be published. That’s due to the same lese majeste law he’s been charged with more than once, a law that’s been so liberally applied beyond its statutory scope it now effectively prohibits any discussion of the monarchy short of adulation.
Not that Sulak is too worried. At 83, he beat the rap before in 1995, when he managed to convince a court to clear him of wrongdoing after a four-year legal battle. In 2014 he was accused again for suggesting an ancient elephant battle probably didn’t go down as remembered. An investigation stemming from charges filed over a year ago is ongoing.
Put simply, Sulak is that very rare breed of Thai royalist that believes loyalty demands dissent.
As for his legal challenges, it hasn’t hurt that he enjoys some privilege as a member of the elite.
With a backdrop of classical Western music and not the royal compositions prevalent now during the period of mourning, Sulak said he was thankful the royal physicians didn’t artificially prolong the life of the late King, who was suffering from kidney failure and other complications.
“I am grateful that His Majesty didn’t have to suffer,” Sulak said. “I must commend the doctors, but surely [His Majesty’s death] left a hole in my heart.”
Sulak, who is known for critical essays and speeches about the monarchy, praised the late King for what he believed was an intervention to quash his first lese majeste charge in 1984. Yet he was equally critical about the late monarch, who passed away Oct. 13 at 88. Sulak pointed out it’s impossible to properly scrutinize the more than 4,000 royal projects initiated by the King, which he acknowledges were done with good intentions toward his subjects.
“Some of these projects could not be [made] properly accountable,” said Sulak, whose elaboration cannot be published.
Informed that much of what he had to say would likely not be published, Sulak pointed out that the law, Article 112 of the Penal Code, doesn’t protect past monarchs as it is written.
“Legally, Article 112 only applies to the present King. Once he passed away, Article 112 is no longer applicable. But unfortunately, this country doesn’t uphold the spirit of the law. Recently, the Supreme Court convicted a person who defamed King Rama IV.”
As a historian, he said the implication is that history cannot be taught if one cannot honestly assess Kings of the past.
“If Article 112 is taken as it stands, then you can criticize the late King Rama the IX legally. And to honor the late King, those in power should also do away with Article 112,” Sulak said.
Despite the King’s own objections to the law, his kingdom has moved in the other direction. More than 60 lese majeste cases have been filed since the May 2014 coup, according to Pirongrong Ramasoota Rananand, a journalism instructor at Chulalongkorn University.
Sulak recited the late King’s opinion on the matter, made in a royal speech in 2005.
“And to honor the late King, those in power should also do away with Article 112, as his late Majesty openly said any case of lese majeste harms him personally and undermines the monarchy,” Sulak said. “If the powers that be really respect the King and honor the King, they should do away with Article 112.
He pointed to wounds which have long festered in silence, such as those traumatized by the Oct. 6, 1976, massacre of students at Thammasat University at the hands of ultra-royalist militias.
“Those who suffered on the 6th of October, many still hold grudges against the King, rightly or wrongly,” he said. “This should be discussed openly, for the benefit of the King and the truth.”
For the sake of the monarchy’s future, he said it must work for the people.
“Do we want the monarchy to be sacred and untouchable or indeed divine?” he said. “Some may wish that … but for most people in the 21st century, the monarchy can only survive if it serves the people.”
“The monarchy must be accountable to the people. It must be strictly under the constitution. The King must be an ordinary person, with a sense of humor, especially at his own expense, otherwise the monarchy will not last.”