Interview by Hathairat Phaholtap

At 86 years of age, Sulak Sivaraksa–better known as S. Sivaraksa–is a senior academic who has been popularly dubbed the “Siamese Intellectual,” and he is no stranger to the courtroom. Throughout his career he has been compelled to answer court summonses more often than he cares to remember. In no less than six of these court cases he was answering to the charge of lèse-majesté, or royal defamation.

His most recent court case was in 2014, when he was accused of defaming King Naresuan during a debate at an academic seminar titled “The history of expunging and contriving.” In 2018, the case was withdrawn by military prosecutors.

The Isaan Record’s editor Hathairat Phaholtap sat down with S. Sivarak to talk about this case, and his views concerning the monarchy, and the question of ethnicity in the Northeast

Sulak Sivaraksa–also known as S. Sivaraksa–is a writer and social critic who has been charged with lèse-majesté six times. Photo by The Isaan Record/Yodsapon Kerdviboon

The Isaan Record (IR): You’ve been charged with lèse-majesté many times over. Why do you still continue to speak out about Article 112 [of the Thai criminal code] and the monarchy? 

 Sulak Sivaraksa: The last time I was accused of insulting the monarchy, if the military court had gone ahead with that case, I would probably have been facing quite a bit of jail time. 

IR: After petitioning the King and receiving a royal pardon from him, you gave interviews to the press saying that the King is compassionate. How is he compassionate?

Sulak: I told His Majesty that I was being unfairly targeted, that the charge of lèse-majesté was just a pretext for silencing me, and he believed me. He instructed the royal secretariat to have the court case dropped immediately. His Majesty is very decisive. If he is going to do something, he doesn’t wait around to do it. I am very grateful indeed. 

IR: It’s been said that you’ve had numerous audiences with the King. Can you tell us how you’ve advised His Majesty?

Sulak: That’s not true; people really do talk too much sometimes. I’ve had the one audience with His Majesty and that’s it. He was simply interested to hear the views of an old man like me. He asked me what I thought about various things, and I replied to the best of my old brain’s ability. I spoke to the King in frank and ernest terms, that much he could tell. There really was nothing more to it than that. 

IR: In your view, how is King Rama X?

Sulak: He is a very capable man. People often think that he wouldn’t be up to things like reading, when he is extremely well read. He knows about people like Netiwit [Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a student activist at Chulalongkorn University]. He knows about the book that Netiwit translated into Thai [Letters to my Grandchildren by Tony Benn]—things the vast majority of Thai people aren’t aware of. It took me by surprise, too. 

IR: You say that he is a very capable and insightful person. What are his views on democracy?

Sulak: He is very interested in the topic of democracy, that much I’m sure. But as to exactly what his views are on the subject of democracy are, I am not sure at all. 

Sulak Sivaraksa at the Wild Dog Bookshop in Khon Kaen.

IR: Do you view Article 112, as it is currently being used, as a political tool or as a means of protecting the monarchy?

Sulak: Oh, it’s definitely not a means of protecting the monarchy! It is well and truly a political tool. The previous king stated under no uncertain terms that anyone who abuses Article 112 is, in effect, harming the King. And by doing that, they would be directly contributing to the decline of the monarchy. He was very clear about that.  

Every administration likes to blow a lot of hot air about being loyal to the king, but they never really follow the King’s real intent for the law. There was only one politician who did, and that was “Seh Nan” [Maj. Gen Sanan Kachornprasart] when he was the Minister of Interior. During his tenure he forbade the police from initiating any 112 cases. I have to give him credit for that. But he’s dead and long gone now. Hardly anyone remembers him anymore. 

IR: How will this law be used from this point onwards? You’ve said many times in the past that it needs to be overhauled. How should it be changed? 

Sulak: I said that in parliament. I said that, “If you MPs had any sense, if you don’t have the courage to get rid of this law, you should at least think about amending it.” For example, they could have gotten rid of the minimum sentence of three years since that would allow the courts to suspend sentences. Another thing is to remove the obligation for the police to accept any accusation of lèse-majesté–however spurious–as prima facie. That’s just ridiculous, that they can’t refuse to arrest someone accused of lèse-majesté, even when they don’t see any reason to. 

There ought to be a legal commission to decide first on whether there is really any grounds for prosecution under Article 112. This commission could be drawn from the judiciary, or from the Bureau of the Royal Household, too, for that matter. The point is that there really ought to be some serious deliberation on whether to go ahead and prosecute someone for the crime of insulting the monarchy. 

But it isn’t because this law, as it is, is extremely useful for the people in power. It has no use whatsoever for those without power. You have to understand that most people don’t have any power, they have no real recourse. The law should be protecting these people, not the people who already have all the power. 

IR: Do you think the monarchy should remain a fixture in Thai politics and society? 

Sulak: That’s actually one of the questions His Majesty posed during my audience with him. I said to him, that for the monarchy to endure, it must make itself useful to the people. If the monarchy is wholly self-serving, well then its days are surely numbered [Sulak shakes his head]. The monarchy must introduce some transparency into its workings if it wants to remain. It must be open to criticism. That’s what I said to him, but I don’t know whether he believes I’m right or not. 

IR: At the moment there’s a buzz online about young people not wanting to stand up for the King in cinemas. What are your views on this? 

Sulak: Standing up for the royal anthem in cinemas and theaters, that’s a custom that we borrowed from western nations when they still did it. In the UK, they’ve stopped doing that long ago! They know that if people want to do these symbolic displays they will, but if they’re not into it then they won’t. There’s no real point to it. 

Let me tell you something. During the reign of Rama XII [King Prajadhipok, r. 1925–1935], there was an incident where police arrested an elderly lady who didn’t stand up for the royal anthem at a theater. Marshal Paribatra Sukhumbandhu [Prince of Nakhon Sawan] who was also Minister of Interior at the time, was absolutely furious. He said, “How is an old lady supposed to know anything about these western displays of respect?” and he had her released immediately. 

The [royal] anthem is just a symbol. It’s designed to honor the monarchy and make it look great. When the people are satisfied, that is a good time to put the anthem on. But when people are dissatisfied, forcing the anthem on them is a mistake—whether it’s a song or whatever. If people are unhappy about these displays, then they have to stop. There is absolutely no good to be gained from forcing the issue.  

IR: But some people still do stand up for the royal anthem—there seems to be a pretty even split. What is the way forward? 

Sulak: Just leave them be! The people who don’t agree with you, that’s who you have to get to come around. The people who already agree with you, they’re already on your side.

It’s very simple. When Tsarist Russia fell, Rama VI asked his son Prince Chakrabongse–who was studying in Russia and living as a member of the Tsar’s royal household–why the monarchy ended there. Prince Chakrabongse’s reply was that though the Tsar was personally a very nice man, he refused to listen to the progressive voices, he refused to hear anyone who disagreed with him. He only listened to the people who agreed with him. Even the young Prince Chakrabongse could see that.

The lesson is very clear. Prince Chakrabongse told the king that the monarchy must pay heed to what its detractors have to say, and have a dialogue with them, and respect their differences of opinion. In the UK, the monarchy has survived because of this. There are critics of the monarchy left, right, and center there, but the monarchy still remains because they allow their detractors to vent. Better to allow them to say whatever they want to say, rather than have them conspire to overthrow the monarchy in secret. 

Sulak Sivaraksa: “Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat was a genuine dictator who was truly fearsome because he managed to use the monarchy as a tool for his own ends.” Photo by The Isaan Record/Yodsapon Kerdviboon

IR: What is the political significance of the monarchy?  

Sulak: The monarchy has been with Thailand for around 700, 800 years now. It’s generally better to keep and improve what you already have than to destroy and start again. It’s easy to chop down a tree, but if the tree gives shade then it’s surely better to keep it than to chop it down. 

Sure, the tree could have parasites living off of it. It might have creatures living in it that can make you wish the tree wasn’t there. You have to remove them, not the tree. The monarchy is the same. You have the extreme right-wingers, the people who are just hanging onto the coattails of the monarchy for their own ends, you have to get them out of the tree. A transparent monarchy that can be critically examined can last forever. It’s better to keep a tree than to chop it down. 

IR: The government of General Prayut Chan-ocha, which started off as a military dictatorship, has manipulated things and got themselves into parliament. What kind of hopes do you have for this government?  

Sulak: Mr. Prayut… I’ve known dictatorships since the government of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, and later General Suchinda Kraprayoon. Those people ordered my arrest, and I ran away from them. But they all had smarts. They were capable men. But Mr. Prayut, he doesn’t know a damned thing about anything. He’s just winging it from day to day. How did we allow this kind of person to be prime minister?

But there are still some promising signs. There are some new parties in parliament now, a lot of people who are progressive in outlook. I think that these people will band together to stick it to Prayut. They’ll use rationality as their main weapon because that’s something that Prayut just doesn’t get. 

He even decided to either leave out or forget certain parts of the oath when being sworn into office. This is very dangerous, because the oath is sacred, yet he doesn’t seem to give a damn. How do you deal with someone like this? The MPs have to get together and push, or kick him out, through whatever legal means they have before them. 

IR: You’ve experienced dictatorships since 1937. Throughout your time, which dictatorship was the scariest? 

Sulak​: Sarit Thanarat. He was a genuine dictator who was truly fearsome because he was able to successfully co-opt the power of both the monarchy and religion for his own ends. Sarit was the most dangerous one of them all. Your publication is based in Khon Kaen. There are still photos of Sarit Thanarat on display around Khon Kaen. That means the people of Khon Kaen have yet to become aware of this. 

You shouldn’t forget that there used to be statues of Monsieur Pavie [Auguste Jean-Marie Pavie, first French vice-consul in Luang Prabang] standing in Laos, both in Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Pavie once said that it was because of him that Laos was able to escape the clutches of Siam. When Laos finally achieved its own independence and became a communist country, the statues of Pavie were thrown into the Mekong river. That shows that the Laotians are more aware than the Thai when it comes to these things. 

I believe when Thai people finally wake up, they’ll be throwing the statues of Sarit Thanarat into the Mekong river too, just as the Laotians have done. 

IR: You’ve said that you’re beginning to see some hope in the younger generation in parliament. Can you see hope for democracy after the most recent election? Do you think the people have democratically awake? 

Sulak: Yes, I believe that some kind of awakening is afoot, whereas the government is rudderless. The more dictatorial the government is, the more the people will awaken. I think it really is worthy of praise, the way that young Thai people are more wise to what’s going on than a lot of people from my own generation. 

My hope is that Thailand is going to make it because of the new generation. In Khon Kaen you have people like Pai Dao Din, and in Bangkok there are people like Netiwit. Things are getting interesting. 

IR: Many people in Isaan feel like their electoral choices have been ignored over and over again. Do you expect this pattern to continue in the future?

Sulak: It’s not always easy to make changes. Power, and access to power, is bought and sold all the time. You have to be patient. 

People these days have probably never heard of Prince Sithiporn Kridakara [1883-1971]. He dedicated his life to fighting for the farmers. During the first election that we had after the dictatorship in 1969, Prince Sithiporn formed a party and he came and asked me to help him find some candidates. He said he just needed one or two good people in parliament to be a voice for the struggling farmers. 

Well, he did get one of his candidates into parliament. But that rascal only went and sold himself to the highest bidder. He never said a word about farmers in all his time in parliament. Prince Sithiporn was heartbroken. I tried to console him, I told him to keep his chin up and just accept the fact that people can be bought, and to keep on fighting. That was a real shame. Prince Sithiporn died soon after that, and was forgotten. 

Thinking of him, I recall him saying that the future of Thailand lies with the farmers, who are equal in dignity to any government official or middle-class urbanite. He said that when the farming backbone of this country gets a real say in how the country is run, that’s when Thailand will have a future that is worth looking forward to. Right now, the farmers are still being woefully exploited, to say nothing of the manual laborers. 

IR: You often talk about Thainess, you like to wear Thai-style outfits; sometimes you even go around in a ratpataen  [traditional Thai loose-fitting knickers]. What is your definition of what it means to be Thai?

Sulak: To be Thai, for me… let’s put it this way. Every nation has a right to express itself through its own language and culture. We shouldn’t look down on other cultures. But what I do look down on is people trying to force [cultural expression] on others. Take the phrae trousers that I’m wearing, for example. During the time of Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram, people would get arrested for wearing these trousers. The police said it was indecent, and that to be presentable in public you had to wear western-style slacks. That’s why I make a point of not wearing western-style clothing.

IR: What do you think “being Isaan” should mean?

Sulak: Being Isaan, you have to be proud of your Lao cultural heritage. These days you’re calling yourselves “Isaan” [a Sanskrit-derived word for the northeasterly direction] people. Is there any country or culture that takes its name from a compass direction relative to another place? So you’re Lao.  What’s wrong with that? You should be proud of the fact that you’re Lao. Whether you’re Lao from this side of the [Mekong] river or that side of the river, you’re still culturally and linguistically Lao. The only thing that keeps trying to drive a wedge between the Lao-speaking peoples is politics.