Faced with a potential prison term for questioning historical accounts of an elephant battle involving an ancient Thai warrior king, 85-year old scholar and respected social critic Sulak Sirivaksa appealed to monarch Maha Vajiralongkorn for a royal reprieve.

The charge, filed in late 2014 by two army officials under the kingdom’s lese majeste law, was soon thereafter dropped by a military court after years of prolonged investigations. Sulak, a self-professed radical royalist and staunch military critic, claims the case was stopped after King Vajiralongkorn advised Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha on the situation.

“If the case went to the military tribunal, they were bound to put me in jail without any law, because the law doesn’t mean anything to them,” Sulak said in an recent interview at his traditional wooden house in downtown Bangkok while referring to his military accusers.

“So many letters, emails from Amnesty International, from Pen International, from all the Nobel laureates all over the world, but Prayut did nothing. And when the King told him to drop the case, obviously it was royal advice that worked.”

Thailand’s royalist junta has ramped up lese majeste charges against perceived palace critics since seizing power in a May 2014 coup, with military-run tribunals handing down some of the harshest prison sentences ever witnessed under a law legal and rights activists say is among the harshest of its type worldwide.

The clampdown has come against the backdrop of what was once seen as an uncertain royal succession from King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away on October 13, 2016, to his then heir apparent son Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn takes part in the royal cremation procession of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok on October 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Jorge Silva
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn takes part in the royal cremation procession of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace, Bangkok, October 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

The junta has justified its repression in part by claiming to upend various anti-royal plots, including one that allegedly aimed to disrupt the revered monarch’s sacred funeral rites last October. More recently, the military regime claimed to penetrate and uproot a T-shirt-distributing republican movement with links to anti-royal agitators based in Laos.

But as King Vajiralongkorn quickly and firmly consolidates his royal palace, and the military top brass who successfully steered the royal transition now seemingly poised to relinquish power at democracy-restoring polls early next year, there are clear, if not incipient, signs that the fearsome law will be used less frequently, if at all, under the new reign.

Sulak is no stranger to the law, which stringently shields the king, queen, heir apparent and regent from any criticism in the name of national security. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Sulak faced similar charges for his criticism of an earlier generation of coup-makers and calls for royal reforms he says aimed to ensure the sacred institution’s long-term survival.

Central to those calls are Sulak’s long-held belief that the lese majeste law, which allows for 15-year prison terms and until recently had a 99% conviction rate for cases that went to trial, should be fundamentally reformed. Sulak says King Vajiralongkorn recognized the law’s past abuse for political purposes in a recent personal audience he had with the King where he offered his royally sought advice on myriad issues.

“I told the King his father said that clearly – it’s on record – that anybody that makes the case of lese majeste harms him personally and undermines the monarchy,” Sulak said. “And you can say publicly the king wrote personally to the Supreme Court and Attorney General, and since then there have been no new cases under [Article] 112.”

Thailand-Sulak Sirivaksa-Lese Majeste-Social Critic-January 2018
Social critic Sulak Sirivaksa (C) at a recent lese majeste court appearance. Photo: Facebook

That has been the case this year, lawyers and diplomats who monitor charges filed under the law attest – though few have until now publicly speculated why. Bangkok-based human rights lawyers who requested anonymity note how certain of their clients charged under the law have had their cases inexplicably dropped in recent months by state prosecutors.

In late September, in an unprecedented ruling, a Thai appeals court overturned lese majeste convictions against six people, aged between 18 and 20, for setting fire to portraits of Kings Vajiralongkorn and Bhumibol. They instead will have to serve lengthy jail terms for damaging public property; the court did not elaborate on why it reversed their anti-royal convictions.

In another lese majeste case, a suspect who plead guilty under the law earlier this year saw the charges dropped after the presiding judge ruled that there was not enough evidence to convict him. Even those recently detained for alleged involvement in an anti-monarchy republican plot were not held or charged under the law, rights activists note.

Sulak says the dropped charges are indicative of the new King’s “mercy.” While the law allows any Thai to file lese majeste charges in defense of the crown, Sulak says it is clear now that future cases will only be accepted for investigation and prosecution with the royal household’s consent. That, he says, marks a change from father to son.

“[King Bhumibol] regarded himself as a constitutional monarch, so he would not interfere,” Sulak said referring to lese majeste charges filed and pursued under the previous king’s reign. “He used an indirect way, the Siamese way, he talked to the judges, he talked to the public prosecutor, but then many ignored his advice.

A mourner holds up a picture of Thailand's late King Bhumibol Adulayadej as she wait in line into the throne hall at the Grand Palace to pay respects to his body that is kept in a golden urn in Bangkok, Thailand, November 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha
A mourner holds up a picture of Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulayadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, November 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

“But the present King, unlike his father, he not only advises, he instructs,” Sulak said in reference to the changing application of the lese majeste law. “In Thai, he uses the pradet (royal power) and the prakun (royal mercy).”

King Vajiralongkorn has moved with an alacrity and purpose in consolidating his reign that few diplomatic and other observers anticipated or foresaw upon his acceptance of the throne in late 2016. That’s entailed a recentralization of royal power that had grown diffuse in certain realms during the latter phases of the widely revered King Bhumibol’s 70-year reign.

That, they say, was seen in the amendments Vajiralongkorn’s royal household requested and received to the military-drafted constitution that reasserted certain royal prerogatives and powers not included in an original version passed in a national referendum in August 2016.

It’s also been witnessed in palace-guided reforms of the Buddhist clergy, or Sangha, where many perceived as wayward senior monks have recently been defrocked. Sulak, who has offered advice to the monarch on Sangha reform, says recent changes to Sangha codes and structure would not have been possible without the new king’s moral support.

Other observers wonder about King Vajiralongkorn’s view on the kingdom’s tentative transition back to democracy after more than four years of loyal military rule. The king, who has not spoken publicly on the issue, endorsed the last election-enabling laws on September 12, the final step to set in motion a legally mandated timeline for holding new polls.

Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (C) waves to spectators as he rides his bicycle to take part in a campaign "Bike for Mom" to celebrate the role of his elderly mother Queen Sirikit in Bangkok on August 16, 2015. Thailand's Crown Prince led tens of thousands of blue-clad cyclists through Bangkok in a rare high-profile public appearance amid anxiety over the health of the ailing king. AFP PHOTO / PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL (Photo by PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL / AFP)
Then Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (C) waves as he rides his bicycle in a ‘Bike for Mom’ campaign to celebrate his mother Queen Sirikit, Bangkok, August 16, 2015. Photo: AFP/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

Some read significance into a recent flyer distributed to Bangkok-based diplomatic missions indicating that King Vajiralongkorn would preside over the opening ceremony of a King Prajadhipok Institute think tank event entitled “Thai democracy on the move” to be staged, perhaps symbolically, at the United Nations’ local headquarters on November 8.

The UN earlier this year expressed its “grave” concern about the use of Article 112 and its impact on what it termed “legitimate exercise of the right of freedom of expression.” The military government responded in a letter that said the law “accords with Thai traditional and cultural values” and that the monarchy was “revered by Thais at all levels.”

That exchange of letters may now be somewhat behind the times, as the law’s use appears to be easing dramatically. It also seems increasingly clear that King Vajiralongkorn’s yet-to-be-scheduled formal coronation ceremony will take place after, not before, elections and a new democratic government is installed.

“Democracy starts with freedom of speech and freedom of discussion,” says Sulak, echoing a line from his book entitled Loyalty Demands Dissent, in which he chronicles his past run-ins with the law. Sulak says in the interview he still believes the monarchy must be open to dissent to survive and that the changing use of the law is a step in the right direction.

But as long as anti-royal cases are still pending in Thai military courts, lese majeste-convicted prisoners continue to languish un-pardoned behind bars, and Article 112 remains unchanged on the books, Sulak says, “I will always have my question marks whether open criticism is really possible.”