Section 112 the elephant in the room
The elephant isn’t simply in the room; it is in the room and charging tusk-first at an old man with a walking stick. As this paper has mentioned several times: Another day, another lese majeste story. This time the interpretation of the contentious law goes back much further, to 1593 to be precise, to a dusty battlefield somewhere before “Thailand” existed.
This week police proceeded with the indictment of historian Sulak Sivaraksa for wondering aloud three years ago whether the elephant battle between King Naresuan of Ayutthaya and a Burmese prince in the 16th century actually happened. In October 2014 at a seminar on the (de)construction of history, Mr Sulak expressed his view on that historic episode, and soon two high-ranking soldiers filed a complaint at Chanasongkram Police Station accusing him of defaming the monarchy, a violation of Section 112.
The incident made headlines back then due to its extreme nature, but no one thought it would live on to rear its head. On Monday, Mr Sulak met with prosecutors at the Military Court — the Military Court, yes — and the final decision whether to prosecute him or not will be made on Dec 7. If it goes all the way, as it has done before with many others, Mr Sulak, 85, could face 15 years in jail.
The black cloud has come down so low we thought it couldn’t have come down any lower. It turns out that Thailand of the 2010s has an inexorable storage of unpleasant surprises for you.
The scope of interpretation of Section 112 has been one of the central bristles of modern Thai politics, and while there have been cases that raised your eyebrows and body temperature (that of Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattararaksa, to name just one), this wild reading of the law to cover an event from 400 years ago borders on dark comedy. Mr Sulak, a well-known royalist with biting wit and a take-no-prisoner attitude, is hardly a newbie when it comes to 112: He has been charged four times before, and got away every time. Appearing with his ubiquitous cane, his reaction on Monday was that of resigned acceptance, and yet I’m sure the odd application of the law against which he has repeatedly fought must have baffled him.
To the rest of us, the case triggers serious concern. Can we even discuss history? What is history? The elephant duel between King Naresuan and Crown Prince Mingyi Swa is a chapter every Thai student reads in a textbook — I did 30 years ago and it’s still there today — and to be honest it was one of the least boring stories: This is an action-packed chronicle of princely courage, pachyderm warfare and jingoistic blood-rushing as two tuskers clashed in the middle of the battlefield. And of course it helps that we won. I would say that our inherent mistrust and sense of superiority over Myanmar, which are both misguided, have much of their origin in that chapter of history.
As we know, the episode has been adapted into a TV drama and film, most memorably the six-part Legend of King Naresuan released between 2007 and 2015 (notice that “Legend” in the title). Together with the textbook, the bigbudget action franchise, climaxing with the elephant battle that even the dragoninfested Game of Thrones dares not emulate, succeeds in transplanting history into the popular imagination, cementing the chauvinistic message and confirming the indisputability of it all. Film equals history, and history equals film. For many people, that’s an easy world to live in.
The importance of that elephant duel in the traditional historical consciousness is probably one of the reasons the soldiers filed charges against Mr Sulak. But what is history if we can’t carve it up and examine the worm hidden inside? Remember the Altai Mountain theory, supposedly the place where the Thai tribe originated and which was later rejected — that used to be in high-school textbooks, too. Or the ongoing debate — useful, necessary and enriching, regardless of what the final verdict turns out to be — on the Stone Inscription of King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai. By asking questions, Mr Sulak is doing a service to Thai history, not damaging it.
Otherwise, as in many Section 112 cases, the essence of the supposed violation is mixed in the cauldron of political alchemy, stirred for the effect of fear. It’s something whose bottom we can’t see or reach. At the moment, there is an online campaign asking the state to drop the charges against Mr Sulak, at the same time several international news outlets have reported on the case in a tone of bewilderment (“Pensioner faces jail for doubting Thai history”, reads the Times of London). Fear we may feel, but more than that, embarrassment. And it’s unlikely to be the last time.