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BANGKOK – A Thai military court on Thursday delayed a decision on whether to prosecute a prominent historian and social critic who suggested that a famed duel on elephant-back won by a Thai king against a Burmese prince 500 years ago may not actually have happened.
The 84-year-old Sulak Sivaraksa was charged by police last October under the country's draconian lese majeste law that protects the monarchy from libel and defamation.
The military court on Thursday agreed with Sulak's request to hear views from experts and historians and set a new hearing for Jan. 17.
Sulak told reporters outside the court that "to live in this country you must have a sense of humor because my case is nonsensical." He said it would be impossible for Thais to learn history if commenting on King Naraesuan, who led the famous 1593 battle that is celebrated as a national holiday, is considered illegal.
The case stems from remarks Sulak made in 2014 when he urged a university seminar to think critically about Thai history.
Thailand's lese majeste law is the harshest in the world, punishable by three to 15 years in prison. The law, in writing, only protects the king, queen, and heir apparent, and doesn't appear to mention dead monarchs, but in practice the rules are more widely interpreted.
The ruling military government has pursued over 250 lese majeste cases since it seized power in a 2014 coup, more than any previous governments in the past decade, according to Thai newspaper Prachatai. The law has been widely criticized including by rights groups and the U.N., which has called for it to be revoked.
"The junta's abusive use of the lese majeste law has reached a new height of absurdity when a prominent scholar is charged with a criminal offense for questioning the occurrence of a 16th-century battle," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "Academic freedom and free speech in Thailand will suffer devastating blows if the trial against Sulak proceeds."
Sulak is a well-known academic and proclaimed royalist but an outspoken critic of the lese majeste law. He has previously faced at least five lese majeste charges.
British writer and historian Chris Baker said there are at least 10 different accounts of the elephant battle told in Thai, Burmese and French.
"There is no definitive account. There are various different accounts and historians accept that perhaps we don't actually know what happened," Baker said. "There are just many different stories told about an event that seems to have been very exciting."