Sec­tion 112 the ele­phant in the room

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - Kong Rithdee Kong Rithdee is Life editor, Bangkok Post.

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.

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