BANGKOK (Reuters) - A prominent Thai intellectual has been accused of insulting a medieval king, a government spokesman said on Monday, and faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted.
Thailand has a strict lese-majeste law which makes it a crime to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir to the throne or regent. The law does not apply to past or deceased monarchs but is often loosely interpreted for political ends.
Two retired army officers filed a complaint against veteran social campaigner Sulak Sivaraksa, 82, over remarks he made at a seminar on Oct. 12 including comments about King Naresuan the Great, a national hero who died in 1605.
If convicted, Sulak could be jailed for up to 15 years.
“Police received a complaint filed by two retired soldiers against professor Sulak,” said government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp.
Sulak, one of Thailand’s most prominent scholars and social activists, has been the target of several lese-majeste complaints since the 1980s.
He was not available for comment.
Thailand’s army seized power in a May 22 coup saying it needed to restore order after months of street protests that helped overthrow an elected government. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who led the coup and was appointed prime minister in August, is a self-proclaimed royalist and has vowed to root out critics of the monarchy.
David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based scholar who monitors lese-majeste laws, said the complaint against Sulak was symptomatic of attitudes to the royal insult law under a junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), that has been pursuing such cases with zeal.
“The junta has made it clear from the beginning that it means to pursue alleged violations of lese-majeste with extra vigor. And it has,” said Streckfuss.
“Cases that would have been shelved under the previous government are being fast-tracked into military courts.”
King Naresuan is known in Thailand for his drive to end the domination of invaders from neighboring Burma during his 1590 to 1605 rule. He has been portrayed in a series of blockbuster Thai films.
In 1984 Sulak, a self-proclaimed royalist but one who has publicly said that the monarchy should be subject to scrutiny, was arrested and charged with insulting King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The case was later withdrawn following international pressure.
Authorities have launched more than a dozen lese-majeste prosecutions since the junta took power - including one against a Bangkok taxi-driver who was sentenced to two years and six months in jail over remarks about social inequality he made to a passenger.
Last year, the Supreme Court sentenced a man to two years in prison over a comment he made in 2005 about King Mongkut, known outside Thailand as the king in the play and film “The King and I”, based on a 1944 novel about British teacher Anna Leonowens and her time as a governess at the Siamese court in the early 1860s.
Streckfuss said the case against Sulak had implications for how the government handled complaints of royal insult.
“The case is alarming for it moves the goal post back even further into history,” he said.
Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel