Many Thais are not quite sure of what to make of Sulak Sivaraksa. One day the noted social critic appeared to be on the Democrat Party's side by supporting MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra for Bangkok governor. Then, just two weeks later, he appeared on national television, Thai PBS, harshly criticising the Democrats and others who supported the current form of lese majeste law.
In a political climate where deep polarisation has taken roots, many on both sides of the political divide regard Sulak as a threat if not their enemy. This is nothing new for Sulak, who turned 80 last week. Back in the 1970s, both communists and ultra-royalists considered him their foe as well.
Whether you like or dislike Sulak, agree or disagree with him, the man has few bad virtues, and that's quite rare in Thai society.
First, Sulak is a life-long promoter of the culture of criticism. This is why, although he is a self-avowed royalist, he insisted that loyalty demands dissent. He supports amending the draconian lese majeste law and promotes a climate where all public figures in this country, be they friend or foe, should be subject to public scrutiny.
Second, throughout his life, Sulak has refused to seek political office or economic gain from his activism and intellectual work. Sulak, as a public intellectual, refuses to subject himself to the leadership of one political camp or the other, while many intellectuals and activists today are more than happy to keep silence about the problems of their side while working under their patrons and supporters. Thus we see many red-shirt intellectuals being soft on ousted and fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra or on the red-shirt movement - and the same can be seen among yellow- as well as multicolour-shirt intellectuals.
Because of this quality, Sulak agreed to testify in court to assist red-shirt Ekachai Hongkangwan, who sold unauthorised DVD copies of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and WikiLeaks documents - but was found guilty last month of lese majeste. At the same time, despite his support for Sukhumbhand, Sulak on Thai PBS last month also harshly criticised the Democrat Party, accusing it of exploiting royalist sentiment since its inception six decades ago, until the coup in 2006. "They have yet to recover," said Sulak.
It's people like Sulak of whom the elites and those in power are most wary. On the same day, this person, the only one who has been tried and acquitted three times of lese majeste, could both praise and criticise His Majesty the King. Sulak will not easily yield himself to cookie-cutter characterisation, and some people have a hard time deciding which side he is on, whether Sulak is a friend or enemy.
"A brave person must have the courage to face the truth. Do not run from the truth. One must have moral courage and make full criticism. It's all right if some criticise you. Let them do so. We must give opportunity to those who disagree with us, as disagreement is a foundation of democracy," the man said on Thai PBS on March 18.