Updated: Limiting academic freedom I

26 08 2018

At New Mandala, academic Craig Reynolds writes on the military junta’s case against Professor Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, Pakawadee Veerapatpong, Chaipong Samnieng, Nontawat Machai and Thiramon Bua-ngam, all associated with the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies held at Chiang Mai University in 2017.

PPT has mentioned this case previously.

Reynolds makes some useful points, including noting that the five persons charged with having violated the “ban on political gatherings of five or more” is odd, “because the five never appeared together in the same place.”

But it is disappointing that he gets rather too relativist in his assessment of what’s happening in Thailand and of academic freedom in general. One may play with words for all kinds of reasons, but to ignore the fact that, under the junta, many Thai universities and academics face situations where the military is now a fixture on campus is something that deserves condemnation.

Nor does he say much at all about how administrators have, in several cases, been complicit with the military junta.

We don’t agree that the situation facing Thai academics now is just another example of the ordinariness of academic (non/un)freedom in Thailand or that surveillance of academics is something to be viewed as somehow normalized. Academics who are not junta supporters face a situation only surpassed by the royalist book-burning and polarization of the 1976-77 period.

Update: A reader has sent a news clipping relevant to this story and Reynolds’ recollection of the 1984 ICTS. The reader suggests that memories can be faulty over such a long period of time since those events, but points out that the academics at that conference who signed the letter to the Thai government were being a little braver than might be imagined from the New Mandala account. Indeed, some, but certainly not all, delegates signed a letter calling for the release of “[s]ome writers and academics as well as Thailand’s most famous public intellectual, the author and publisher Sulak Sivaraksa, [who] were in jail at the time.”

Sulak faced a lese majeste charge, while journalist Chacharin Chaiwat  and Chulalongkorn University academic Preecha Piampongsarn stood accused of communism. At the time, standing up for these three was important and all three were soon released. The reader points to the picture of the press conference, with Reynolds in in the center, suggesting that Reynolds’ somewhat churlish commentary on that press event should not, today, diminish the principled stand for freedom of speech taken in 1984. After all, Reynolds was clearly central to that stand.


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