Academics unsafe

18 02 2019

PPT has posted several times on academic freedom in Thailand, or rather the lack of it, and academic conferences being held in Thailand.

The next major conference we know of is the AAS-in-ASIA conference, to be held 1-4 July, 2019 in Bangkok. Despite earlier restrictions and censorship associated with an earlier AAS-in-ASIA in India, the AAS decided to hold an event in Thailand, and promoting the conference with an array of Orientalist memes about tourism, culture and food..

The claimed reasons for going to Bangkok were stated by the AAS:

Although Thais remain hopeful that their country will have elections (current news reports are suggesting the possibility of early 2019), Thailand currently is ruled by a military junta. Nonetheless, our host partners affirm that holding the AAS-in-Asia conference in Thailand provides support for free academic inquiry in their country. In this spirit, the AAS Board of Directors voted in October 2017 to hold the 2019 AAS-in-Asia conference in partnership with this coalition of Thai universities.

The partners are Chiang Mai, Chulalongkorn, Kasetsart, and Mahidol universities, none of which have recently been at the forefront of the promotion of academic freedom. Several academics, including from Thammasat and Chulalongkorn have had to flee Thailand for fear of arrest for their academic writings that led to repression and lese majeste charges. Others have been threatened by university administrations, assaulted on campus and attacked by the military junta.

In this context, it seems more than appropriate to raise two issues that demand that the AAS Board of Directors reconsider their choice of venue.

First, the AAS has an Anti-Harassment Policy for its upcoming Colorado Annual Conference:

The Association for Asian Studies strives to provide a safe and welcoming conference environment free from bias and intimidation for all participants. The Association has a zero-tolerance policy toward discrimination and all forms of harassment, including but not limited to sexual harassment. No form of discriminatory or harassing conduct by or towards any employee, member, vendor, or other person in our workplace or at AAS conferences or workshops will be tolerated. The Association is committed to enforcing its policy at all levels within the Association. Anyone who engages in prohibited discrimination or harassment will be subject to discipline, up to and including expulsion from the conference site and revocation of membership in the association.  Instances of harassment should be brought to the attention of the AAS Executive Director, who will then consult with the executive officers regarding a course of action.

PPT’s view is that if this policy is to be applied in Thailand, then the Board cannot guarantee “a safe and welcoming conference environment free from bias and intimidation for all participants” and nor can its participating organizations. We know this from the outcome of the International Conference on Thai Studies in Chiang Mai in 2017.

Which leads directly to our second point. Prachatai reports on the harassment of foreign academics that has been continuing since that ICTS conference, including of members of the AAS.

It reports that:

Andrew Johnson, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University, was temporarily detained by the Thai Immigration Police upon leaving Thailand on 10 February 2019.

As it turns out, Johnson is just the first to make this public. Prachatai has of several who have been detained in this way:

Since the military coup in 2014, the military government has implemented several measures to restrict freedom of expression in order to suppress criticism of their rule, which has also affected academic freedom. Other researchers also reported being similarly kept under surveillance and questioned.

It cites the case of Rosenun Chesof of the University of Malaya, ” detained by the Immigration Police 10 times. The first was on 30 August 2018…”. It also mentions Professor Philip Hirsch, “a visiting scholar at Chiang Mai University, has been questioned on what he was doing in Thailand, and Chiang Mai University had to issue him a letter of reference.”

PPT has contacted several scholars over several years about their experiences. We know of one scholar who was refused entry to Thailand and another senior scholar who was semi-officially warned in 2010, by the Thai Embassy in Washington to desist campaigning about lese majeste or face “problems” in Thailand.

We have also been informed that at least 8-9 scholars have experienced harassment when entering or leaving Thailand.

Prachatai states that:

Johnson subsequently tweeted that he was told by the police that they had a list of about thirty researchers “on society, culture, politics” and that they wanted information on where he had been and who he had talked to.

Of course, the harassment of Thailand-based scholars has been far more sustained.

All of this means that the AAS Board will very likely place itself in a situation where it will be in breach of its own Anti-Harassment Policy.


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