SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: October 09, 2017

Attack Types: Prosecution

Institution(s):Thammasat University

Region & Country:Southeastern Asia | Thailand

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On October 9, 2017, Thai authorities charged Sulak Sivaraksa, a prominent Thai academic, activist, and founding director of the Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation, with lèse-majesté, in response to comments he made during an academic conference at Thammasat University. If convicted, he could face 15 years in prison.

Mr. Sulak is an 85-year-old scholar who has taught at universities in Thailand, the U.S., Canada, and Europe. In addition to his scholarly work, he co-founded a network of Buddhists who conduct human rights and environmental activism work around the world. He has been arrested repeatedly in retaliation for his activism and has been charged with violating Thailand’s lèse-majesté law on several occasions previously.

On October 5, 2014, Mr. Sulak participated in a Thammasat University conference titled, “Thai History: the Construction and Deconstruction,” during which he questioned a popular historical narrative concerning a battle fought by the 16th-century Thai king Naresuan. Mr. Sulak reportedly told the audience “not to easily believe in things. Otherwise they will fall prey to propaganda.” He also reportedly criticized King Naresuan for being “cruel.” The discussion took place following the release of a military-sponsored film honoring the battle, which for years has featured prominently in school textbooks, popular culture, and the arts.

Following the October 5 seminar, two retired army officers publicly condemned Mr. Sulak’s comments, accusing him of lèse majesté, which prohibits criticism of Thailand’s king, queen, crown prince, or regent. Thai police made similar accusations in a statement on December 24, 2014. On October 5, 2017 (the third anniversary of the seminar), Thai police summoned Mr. Sulak to meet with prosecutors. On October 9, he was escorted by the police and formally charged with lèse majesté.

As of this report, Mr. Sulak is expected to meet again with prosecutors on December 7, 2017. If convicted, he could face 15 years in prison.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the prosecution of a scholar in retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to academic freedom and freedom of expression – conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a party. State authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with scholars’ academic and expressive activity, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Prosecution aimed at limiting such activity undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.

UPDATE: On January 17, 2018, a Thai military court dropped the lèse-majesté charge brought against Mr. Sulak for “lack of evidence.” According to one media source, Mr. Sulak had petitioned to Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn for help.