Limiting academic freedom II

9 09 2018

A couple of weeks ago, PPT posted on the lackadaisical discussion of academic freedom in Thailand from an Australian-based historian. That blasé account was purportedly about the charging of the principal organizer and several others involved with the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies held at Chiang Mai University in 2017.

Interestingly, as a reader informs us, the Association for Asian Studies has now announced in an email to members that its next AAS-in-Asia conference will be held in Bangkok on July 1-4, 2019. In part, the announcement says:

The AAS-in Asia conferences offer opportunities for Asia-based scholars to interact with each other and their international colleagues. AAS is partnering with a five-university coalition of organizers led by Thammasat University; the other members of the coalition are Chiang Mai, Chulalongkorn, Kasetsart, and Mahidol Universities. In terms of travel, tourism, and obtaining necessary visa documents, Bangkok is known as an easily accessible hub in Southeast Asia.

It then goes on to discuss controversy.

At its most recent AAS-in-Asia, held in Delhi, India, before the event began it became clear that there were major issues of academic freedom, with the President of the AAS writing to members stating that the:

Government of India, while granting political clearance to the conference (a requirement under Indian law), has refused to issue conference visas to citizens of Pakistan or even to persons of Pakistani origin. The officers of the AAS (that means, currently, Katherine Bowie, Past President; Laurel Kendall, Past Past President; Prasenjit Duara, Vice President; and me, President) and all the members of the AAS Board of Directors abhor the exclusion of Pakistani scholars from the conference.

Abhorred, but went ahead, stating: “we believe our course of action is the right one under the circumstances, despite the heated objections that it has generated.”

Remarkably, the AAS has now chosen Thailand, ruled by a military junta. This time it is explained that the AAS:

is encountering challenges in determining venues for international academic conferences, ranging from finding host institutions with faculty and staff willing to take on the significant workload involved in organizing a conference with some 1,000 attendees, to facing the risk of becoming ensnared in the politics of governments in the countries in which the host institutions are located. The U.S. government itself has issued new regulations regarding visa applications from citizens of Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. 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. To take one example, Chulalongkorn has several times prevented students from protesting (here and here). Several academics, including from Thammasat and Chulalongkorn have had to flee Thailand for fear of arrest for their academic writings that caused lese majeste charges. Others have been threatened by university administrations, assaulted on campus and attacked by the military.

That there may be a rigged “election” will not immediately change the repressive atmosphere that regularly sees military personnel in uniform patrolling university campuses and “inviting” students and academics to military bases for “attitude adjustment” session. There’s also massive censorship of online media and the domestic news media is not free from interference.

In addition, under the military government, films, discussions, seminars and more, related to Thailand and other countries, have been suppressed.

Even if there is a change of government following the junta’s rigged “election,” there are major topics of interest to academics working on Thailand and probably Myanmar, Cambodia, China and Vietnam that will be frowned upon. There will also be an effort to censor and self-censor discussion of anything to do with the monarchy and the military that is not laudatory.

Thailand seems a rather poor choice. But, as the AAS makes clear, visas will be relatively easy to get. Well, at least for those who are not already blacklisted or who face arrest in Thailand.





Mid-week reading: monarchy, academics, hypocrisy, hope

30 08 2018

There are several articles we think deserve a reading this week.

The first is actually two articles by University of Leeds academic Duncan McCargo. In recent weeks he’s been reporting on visits he’s making inside Bangkok’s rapidly expanding royal zone. The first was at Asia Times Online, on the end of the military’s Royal Turf Club, which reverts to the Crown Property Bureau, which itself is now the personal property of the king. We have posted on this. This article says little about that link, which is odd, as it is the story.

McCargo’s second piece is at The Nikkei Asia Review and is on the soon to close zoo. In it, he does dare to at least mention the king in the context of the zoo’s closure. We have also posted on this. He implies that it might also suit the military regime. So careful does the academic have to be that self-censorship means a casual reader might miss these associations.

As an important footnote, McCargo did put his name to an undated International Statement in support of Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti and colleagues some time ago.

Another article worth considering is at The Nation, reflecting on the ill-health of exiled academic Professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul and his principles. The comments on hypocrisy among political activists and academics are well made. At the same time, some of the journalists at The Nation, including the author of this piece – Tulsathit Taptim – have also been been extravagant propagandists for those who have attacked and reviled Somsak.

Somsak has indeed stuck with his principles. He’s been brave and determined in addressing important historical issues and the monarchy and Article 112. Like rabid dogs, the military and ultra-royalists attacked Somsak and made him pay.

We wish Somsak a speedy recovery and applaud his efforts to pull back some of the curtains that hide the monarchy and its actions.

The third set of articles is from the Focus on the Global South. Its 4th Newsletter “tackles the issue of democracy in Asia and its different facets–elections, constitutions, (extreme) nationalism, populism, majoritarian rule, and press freedom.” Two of the Newsletter’s items are especially relevant for Thailand. One is an article titled “The Indomitable Spirit of Democracy in Thailand.” The second is an interview with pro-democracy activist Rangsiman Rome. There’s room for some optimism.





Propaganda for the junta and monarch(y)

29 08 2018

While PPT was posting of Fascism and academic accommodations to it and for it, a couple of interesting stories appeared in The Nation and Khaosod that seem to reflect on the issues of academic (un)freedom, indoctrination and propaganda.

With the so-called succession crisis seemingly never really materializing, royalism and royalist propaganda for the king has moved into an even higher gear, fertilized by the junta’s fervent monarchism and anti-republicanism.

Khaosod’s story is of blunt force propaganda inflicted on students at Thammasat University by junta and royalist university administrators:

Eight people, six women and two men wearing yellow neckerchiefs and blue baseball caps, marched on stage with the precision of a military parade. Taking turns speaking over the next two hours, they described the benevolence of the Chakri dynasty in bringing peace and happiness to the people of Thailand.

The propaganda for the monarchy began with the shameful groveling of “rector Kesinee Withoonchart …[who] prostrated herself on the ground before it [a portrait of the king].”

The propagandists, “drawn from the armed forces and police” are “volunteers” in the pay of the state and are known as “Volunteers Unit 904. The number 904 is derived from the former radio call sign of the king before he was king.”

Endless palace and junta propaganda wrapped up “with people being asked to stand for a song newly written for the new king and the traditional royal anthem.” The message seems to be that the population will now endure double doses of forced erect standing that Fascists mistake for obedience.

This gross effort concluded in an entirely appropriate manner: “a question-and-answer session saw no takers from the audience.” Fascists and royalists – many of them combining these proclivities – mistake this for orderliness and attention to hierarchy.

The Nation has a more on propaganda, this time for the junta’s Deputy Dictator, the Watch Man, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan. Like magic, a “new Facebook page has been created to support and defend Deputy Premier and Defence Minister Prawit …, who has been embattled with damaging scandals recently.” It seems this page is to support “Uncle Pom’s Lovely Side.” We are unsure which side that is, but we guess it is his right side.

The creation of the page is more or less an admission of guilt because of its need to manufacture “messages in support of Prawit, news reports in favour of the ruling junta, and video clips defending Prawit against allegations.” The syrupy propaganda reckons the dumpy general is “a reliable man who has been trusted by the armed forces for over five decades, and also a former commander well loved by his colleagues and ‘brothers’ in the Army.” No recommendation at all! But is does suggest that the Army is at work creating the page.





Fascism is not relative

28 08 2018

In email traffic regarding our post commenting on the lackadaisical discussion of academic freedom in Thailand, a reader mentioned ‘Silence Is Health’: How Totalitarianism Arrives by Uki Goñi. It is an account of how the “ordinariness” of Fascism and its associated repressive practices is normalized and internalized by societies and classes.

Author Uki Goñi is a Buenos Aires-based journalist and author who has written for several newspapers, and this rather long article is well worth reading, not least for its comments on universities.

The path to Fascism is strewn with lackadaisical acceptance of the steps taken on its journey to political dominance.





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.





Academic harassment

23 07 2018

Earlier in the month PPT posted the Amnesty International statement on the profoundly ludicrous charges against academics and students from Chiang Mai University. Those charges were against Prof Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, director of the Regional Centre for Social Science and Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University, Pakawadee Veerapatpong, Chaipong Samnieng, Nontawat Machai and Thiramon Bua-ngam. They attended and organized the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies at Chiang Mai University in July 2017. They all denied charges of breaching the junta’s ban on political assembly. Human Rights Watch described the charges as bogus.

They were formally indicted in Chiang Mai on 4 July. Their next court hearing is set for 18 August.

For more information on the case, see the latest update by Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

To take action and call for the prosecution to be halted, you can sign this letter organized by Scholars at Risk and please also forward the link to other colleagues.

Scholars at Risk has also sent a formal letter General Prayuth Chan-ocha and other relevant parties calling for the prosecution to cease.

The International Commission for Jurists has issued a formal letter calling for the prosecution to be stopped.

This case is one of many cases of restriction of freedom of thought and political freedom generally under the military dictatorship. For more information on the range of prosecutions for lese majeste, sedition, public assembly, and other peaceful actions, see the four-year report of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.





AI on academic harassment

9 07 2018

Readers might have imagined that the profoundly ludicrous charges against academics and students from Chiang Mai University may have slipped away into nothingness. However, the military junta seems intent on harassing these persons with a view to silencing other academics and deadening academic discussion within Thailand. So the ridiculousness continues.

The last we remember of this case was that in August 2017, when the Army brought charges against Prof Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, director of the Regional Centre for Social Science and Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University, Pakawadee Veerapatpong, Chaipong Samnieng, Nontawat Machai and Thiramon Bua-ngam. They met Chang Phuak police and were fingerprinted.

These persons attended and organized the International Conference on Thai Studies at Chiang Mai University in July 2017. They all denied charges brought against them, which seemed to be something to do with breaching the junta’s ban on political assembly. Human Rights Watch referred to the charges as bogus.

Of course, the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies was not a political meeting but an academic meeting. It was the military junta that politicized it by provocatively sending uniformed and plainclothes police and military officers to snoop and spy on the event, apparently looking for any topic or even a few words that might offend military and monarchy.

It was this snooping, spying and efforts to censor that saw those charged and others protest the heavy-handed surveillance of the 13th International Thai Studies Conference.

According to Amnesty International, two academics, two students and a writer were charged last week. The charge is “holding an unlawful political gathering…”.

AI states:

These absurd charges would be laughable were it not for the potentially grave consequences for those involved, and what they say about the parlous state of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Thailand…. All these students and academics did was make a peaceful, satirical comment about the heavy military presence at a university conference. For this, they could face up to six months in jail under a repressive decree introduced by the military government. Pushing this case through the judicial system highlights the crippling measures authorities are instituting to silence academics and gag any form of dissent.

Further, AI calls on the military junta to “drop these ridiculous charges and repeal the military decree that outlaws peaceful public assemblies of five or more persons. They must also put an end to the prosecutions, harassment and surveillance of academics, activists and intellectuals that has blighted the country since the coup.”

As far as we can tell, in strict terms of the junta’s decree banning public assembly, these five cannot even be considered to have come together as five and to have engaged in a political assembly. But legal facts have never prevented the junta from using “law” for harassment and repression.

At the  at Chiang Mai University in July 2017, members of the group held up a banner stating in Thai that “An academic seminar is not a military base,” alluding to the  by security forces in uniform and plainclothes.