Thongchai Winichakul has a post at New Mandala asking questions about three academic conferences to be held in Thailand in 2017 and using the word “boycott.” Clipped from his post, these are:
- The 13th International Conference on Thai Studies (ICTS), hosted by Chiang Mai University, 15-18 July 2017 (deadlines for proposals: 30 August 2016 for panels, and 30 November 2016 for individual papers);
- The 10th International Convention of Asian Scholars (ICAS) by the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), hosted by Chiang Mai University, 20-23 July 2017 (deadline for proposals: 10 October 2016);
- The 2nd Conference for Southeast Asian Studies in Asia, by the Consortium for Southeast Asian Studies in Asia (SEASIA), hosted by Chulalongkorn University.
Similar questions were raised in 2007 regarding the 2008 ICTS at Thammasat University. (Reading the responses to that post are enlightening of the darkness that haunts academia, both local and international.)
There is no academic freedom in Thailand. Calls have been made for academic freedom, but the military dictatorship brooks no interference in its reactionary work. The few activist students and academics are continually threatened by the junta and in the “suspect” areas of the country, the military actively police campuses. Several Thai academics have been forced to flee the country and yet their families are still harassed. The control of all universities in the country is effectively in the hands of royalist academics and administrators.
Given all of this evidence, it is reprehensible that the 10th International Convention of Asian Scholars (ICAS) and the 2nd Conference for Southeast Asian Studies in Asia should decide to hold their events in Thailand well after the 2014 military coup and when Thailand is the only military dictatorship in the world. After all, the debate that took place in the International Studies Association in 2014 and 2015 saw its ISA Global South Caucus Conference removed from Chulalongkorn University and Thailand (see here, here and here). Yes, sigh, they moved it to another state where academic freedom is restricted, but at least they were not meeting under a military dictatorship.
Academics are a broad and usually pretty divided and politically weak “group.” In many ways, the “group” is if representative of anything, reflecting a broader set of interests in society, often connecting with the powers-that-be.
Think of Thailand, where academics have tended to consider themselves a part of the bureaucratic section of the elite. Thai academics have a history of sucking up to and supporting military regimes and salivating over positions with governments that provide money and prestige. When General Prem Tinsulanonda was unelected prime minister, he surrounded himself with prominent professors keen to promote “semi-democracy,” military and monarchy. In more recent times, royalist academics have donned yellow shirts and supported all kinds of fascist ideas. Others serve the military dictatorship, including Panitan Wattanayagorn and Bowornsak Uwanno.
Academics are also lacking in political intestinal fortitude.
Think of Singapore, which has some of the world’s top-ranked universities, but where academics almost never challenge the status quo. If they do, they are quickly punished.
Nothing much came of the call to boycott ICTS in 2008. One of the commentators on the boycott opposed it, saying: “These days you have to be Swiss and drunk and in possession of a spray can to be charged with les [sic.] majeste. Most academics do not fit this profile, at least during working hours.” How wrong that was, then and since.
The opposition to the ICTS was “bought off” by special offers. As New Mandala’s Andrew Walker stated then:
At the time I was substantially in agreement with the call for a boycott. But subsequent events have persuaded me to attend. The key events have been the organisation of a series of panels in which the Thai monarchy will be subject to concerted academic scrutiny. As far as I know this public scrutiny is a first for Thailand (if not the world).
This is something like the call made by Thongchai in his New Mandala post. He suggests that “[a]nother approach to support our colleagues in Thailand is to make these events as vibrant, academically rigorous and critical as possible, to help push the boundaries of debate further.”
That was the “compromise” in 2008. Not much came of that brief and controlled moment of “freedom.” Academics are always suckers for such political maneuvers. Yes, there were some papers on the monarchy, but the academic environment has deteriorated remarkably since. The political environment in Thailand is far worse than in 2008.
Should there be a boycott? Absolutely. Will there be an organized boycott? No. Will some academics boycott. Yes. Some of this will be enforced as several academics, including some Thai academics living overseas, are effectively banned from Thailand and fear arrest if they attend a conference.