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Thailand Drops Charges Against Historian Who Questioned the Facts Around Historic 16th-Century Duel

Sulak Sivaraksa cast doubt on whether the legendary King Naresuan had really defeated an adversary while riding an elephant

Close-up image of mural depicting the battle in Phra Ubosot, Wat Suwan Dararam, Ayutthaya, Thailand. (GNU Free Documentation License)
smithsonian.com

In 1593, after a bitter struggle against the supremacy of the Burmese, the Thai King Naresuan defeated a Burmese ruler during a dramatic battle on elephant-back. That, at least, is how historical accounts in Thailand portray the encounter, which has become an important liberation story to the country. But when an 84-year-old historian and activist cast doubt on the details of King Naresuan’s feat, he found himself facing prosecution in Thailand’s military court—a case that was dropped on Wednesday for lack of evidence after a two-year investigation.

As the Associated Press reports, prosecutors decided not to pursue their case against Sulak Sivaraksa, who was charged in October under Thailand’s controversial lese majeste law against defaming, insulting or threatening the royal family. The charges were connected to a 2014 university lecture, during which Sulak cautioned his audience "not fall prey to propaganda,” and questioned whether King Naresuan had in fact slain a Burmese crown prince while riding an elephant. He was first charged then, according to Australia’s ABC News, but the case resurfaced last fall when ​police finished their investigation. 

King Naresuan ascended to the throne in 1590, when Thailand (formerly known as Siam) was a vassal state of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Naresuan denounced his allegiance to the Burmese and defeated a succession of armies that tried to invade Siam. The decisive conflict between the countries is said to have occurred in 1593, when Naresuan reportedly challenged the Burmese Crown Prince Mingyi Swa to a duel on elephant-back and defeated his opponent by stabbing him with a lance.

Chris Baker, a historian specializing in Thai history, told ABC News that there are “around 10 different accounts of the incident,” all of which are different. But the most commonly cited telling of the battle— Naresuan stabs the Burmese prince during one-to-one combat on elephants—has become deeply entrenched in Thai culture. The story is particularly important to the military, which celebrates the reported date of the battle with a parade every year. And since Thailand’s army seized power in a 2014 coup, the country has been ruled by a military government.

If he had been found guilty of violating the lese majeste law, Sulak would have faced up to 16 years in prison. Sulak, who describes himself as a royalist, credited Thailand’s new king ​Maha Vajiralongkorn for securing his freedom.

"I contacted many people for help but no one dared to,” he said, according to the AP. “So I petitioned the king. If it weren't for His Majesty's grace, this case would not have been dropped."

Thailand’s lese majeste rule technically applies only to a living king, queen and heir apparent, but the law has been rather loosely interpreted in the past. Human rights activists have criticized Thailand for using lese majeste to restrict free speech and silence dissidents, and charges have ramped up since the military took power. At least 94 people have been prosecuted and 43 have been sentenced for violating lese majeste since the 2014 coup, reports Panu Wongcha-um of Reuters.

A prominent social justice reformer, Sulak has been exiled from Thailand twice, imprisoned four times and accused of defaming the monarchy on multiple occasions. But he has, according to Matteo Pistono of the Kyoto Journal, always won acquittals.

Sulak told the media that the most recent case against him was dropped without any conditions. “Previously they asked me to shut my mouth, but I can’t,” he said, according to The Nation. “I’m dying to speak the truth. Human beings must have freedom of expression.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer is based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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