Sulak Sivaraksa – the ‘progressive royalist’ charged with lèse majesté 5 times
Social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, a veteran scholar who has a love-hate relationship with royalists, was the “big surprise” planned by protest leaders at their anti-establishment rally last Wednesday (November 25).
The elderly “Siamese intellectual”, as he is described by his admirers and students, addressed the mostly young protesters gathered outside the headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank (SCB).
The protesters are upping the pressure for monarchy reform, as well as a new Constitution and the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Their original plan was to rally at the Crown Property Bureau to demand “the return of assets that should belong to citizens”.
But to avoid a possible clash with royalists, the protesters moved the venue to the HQ of SCB, in which His Majesty the King is the major shareholder.
The protesters’ 10-point manifesto for monarchy reform, issued in August, calls for the annulment of the 2018 Royal Assets Structuring Act passed by the post-coup regime. The law combines the King’s personal assets and the crown’s wealth managed by the Crown Property Bureau.
Targeting the PM instead
To the surprise – and disappointment – of many protesters, Sulak mainly directed his attack at the PM.
Sulak said General Prayut was acting against the wishes of both Rama IX and X that prosecution under the lèse majesté law (Article 112) be suspended. He said King Bhumibol Adulyadej once compared enforcement of the law to an assault on the monarchy, and that King Maha Vajiralongkorn requested a moratorium on the use of Article 112.
“Prayut is now going to use Article 112 again. This is against the royal command. It’s tantamount to undermining the monarchy and bullying the King. Prayut is so evil. Let’s kick him out,” Sulak told the protesters during his brief speech on Wednesday evening.
The PM had earlier threatened to “enforce all laws and articles” after messages deemed insulting to the monarchy were left at protest sites.
Royalist critic of monarchy
Critics of the monarchy describe Sulak, 87, as a “royalist thinker”. Royalists, however, view him as a staunch critic of the monarchy.
Also labelled a “progressive conservative” and “progressive royalist”, the scholar was among the first to publicly suggest reform of the monarchy over a decade ago in his writings and academic talks – at a time when such discussion was taboo in the Kingdom.
In March 2013, public television channel Thai PBS suspended a broadcast of Sulak debating with historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul about monarchy reform, royal assets and the lèse majesté law after royalists protested at the station. The programme was broadcast later.
Somsak, regarded as a key mentor for the anti-establishment protesters, is now living overseas to escape prosecution under the lèse majesté law.
‘True friend’ of monarchy
Describing himself as a “true friend” of the monarchy, Sulak said friendly, sincere and frank criticism is something people in high places need.
“The monarchy has brought us benefits for a thousand years. Certainly, there are some flaws. Just like large trees, it has parasites. [But] preservation is better than destruction,” Sulak told The Momentum news website in November 2016.
“The monarchy must be for the benefit of citizens, not the institution itself. This way, the monarchy will stay forever,” he said, repeating a view he has voiced many times over the years.
Sulak is a self-proclaimed royalist, conservative and monarchist who has long criticised the lèse majesté law, which was enforced against him five times in 1984, 1991, 2006, 2008 and 2014. In the first four cases, charges were dropped or he won in court.
Tried and tested defence
His long-standing defence is to state that he is “a true royalist who believes in the need to offer well-meant critical views and dissent so the monarchy can review itself from time to time”.
The fifth case was brought against him after Sulak expressed doubt about an episode in the life of King Naresuan, who features prominently in royalist mythology as a national saviour.
Like other lèse majesté cases after the 2014 coup, Sulak’s was tried by a military court.
However, the military tribunal in December 2017 dropped the charges, citing a lack of evidence and witnesses.
Sulak later credited the result to “royal kindness” following his petition to HM the King. “If it weren’t for His Majesty’s grace, this case would not have been dropped,” he said.
Sulak’s status is bolstered by the huge international support he receives through his long-established networks of religious and social activists. He also gains considerable local support from academics and activists influenced by his works over the decades.
Sulak was born into a wealthy Thai-Chinese family in Ayutthaya province in March 1933 – nine months after the Siamese Revolution ended absolute monarchy.
Sulak took a philosophy of history and literature degree at the University of Wales in Britain, graduating in 1960. A year later, he passed the Middle Temple Bar law exams in London.
After returning to Thailand, he became editor of the Social Science Review, a progressive intellectual journal.
In 1968, Sulak founded the Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation, an umbrella group for non-governmental organisations.
A prolific writer, Sulak has authored more than 200 books on various topics ranging from philosophy and Buddhism to the Thai monarchy and social issues. They include biographies of Thai luminaries and collections of his speeches, articles and interviews. Many were either written in, or translated into English.
He is known in the West as a co-founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, which was established in 1989 with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, among others.
He has also been a visiting professor at the universities of Toronto, Berkeley and Cornell, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the American Friends Service Committee in 1994.
A year later, he was awarded the Swedish Right Livelihood Award, which is known as the “Alternative Nobel”.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk