Academic boycott I

29 05 2016

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.

Thongchai Winichakul

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.





Reviews and reads

9 03 2016

Readers might be interested in two more reviews of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis. We posted on earlier at least eight earlier reviews of the book, and these reviews can be found here.

The first is probably already widely known as it is by Andrew Walker at New Mandala. In a lengthy review, Walker states:

It certainly is a myth-busting tour-de-force showing how Thai kings, and the elites that surround them, have regularly generated political crises, which also reflect competition between narrow sectional interests.  However, whether or not the book will achieve its myth-busting objective is hard to tell. Most readers, I suspect, will already be converts to MacGregor Marshall’s position. By contrast, those who subscribe to the royal mythology will probably be confirmed in their view that unsympathetic Westerners like MacGregor Marshall are determined to slander the royal institution.Kingdom in crisis

Walker concludes:

… Marshall’s preoccupation with the succession points to a broader problem with this book.

Despite its provocations and iconoclasm this is very much a royalist account of Thai history. Like Thailand’s royalists, MacGregor Marshall places the king at the heart of the Thai polity. In A Kingdom in Crisis, contestation over royal power is the engine room of 21st century Thai politics, as it has been over the past millennium (p  213).

The mass of people sometimes do feature, but they are peripheral to MacGregor Marshall’s central purpose. When they do enter into the narrative, it is as an undifferentiated mass of “ordinary  people” who are struggling against the elite in pursuit of “greater freedom and a fairer society” (p 109).

This two-dimensional and a-historical model — a cut-throat elite ruling over a repressed population — is classic orientalism and contributes little to an understanding of the complex and cross-cutting social and economic forces that have brought Thailand to its contemporary political impasse.

The other review is by Jim Glassman in the journal Pacific Affairs. The review can be freely viewed. The review begins:

The publication of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis has been a much-awaited event among Thai scholars. Marshall, a Scottish journalist who used to work for Reuters, has been releasing large pieces of this study for a number of years now, at his “#thaistory” blog. The book adds something to this material but will not be a huge surprise to those who have read his work at the blog site.

Glassman adds that the book is really rather thin:

Given the relative paucity of accessible and critical English-language writing about the Thai monarchy, and the risks that such writing entails, A Kingdom in Crisis should be considered a significant accomplishment, and Zed Books should be given credit for being willing to publish it….

For many scholars and people fairly familiar with Thai politics, some of Marshall’s analysis will nonetheless prove fairly thin gruel. It is not only that there has actually been a string of books in recent history that raise telling issues about the monarchy and challenges of succession—for example, the works by Benedict Anderson, Paul Handley, Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, William Stevenson, David Streckfuss and Thongchai Winichakul, which the author cites, as well as works by Kevin Hewison, Rayne Kruger and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, which he doesn’t cite—but Marshall’s explanation of the current crisis is somewhat one-sided.

Acknowledging shortcomings in the book, Glassman concludes:

A Kingdom in Crisis is a useful read, particularly for those unfamiliar with the roles of royalist-military elites (and their international allies) in shaping Thailand’s ongoing struggles for democracy. It will certainly find its place on the bookshelves of Thai democracy activists—provided they do not live in Thailand.

In the same issue of Pacific Affairs there is an article which is of interest because it is based on a survey of serving military officers. The authors of “Professionals and Soldiers: Measuring Professionalism in the Thai Military” are Punchada Sirivunnabood of Mahidol University and Jacob Isaac Ricks of Singapore Management University. The abstract states:

Thailand’s military has recently reclaimed its role as the central pillar of Thai politics. This raises an enduring question in civil-military relations: why do people with guns choose to obey those without guns? One of the most prominent theories in both academic and policy circles is Samuel Huntington’s argument that professional militaries do not become involved in politics. We engage this premise in the Thai context. Utilizing data from a new and unique survey of 569 Thai military officers as well as results from focus groups and interviews with military officers, we evaluate the attitudes of Thai servicemen and develop a test of Huntington’s hypothesis. We demonstrate that increasing levels of professionalism are generally poor predictors as to whether or not a Thai military officer prefers an apolitical military. Indeed, our research suggests that higher levels of professionalism as described by Huntington may run counter to civilian control of the military. These findings provide a number of contributions. First, the survey allows us to operationalize and measure professionalism at the individual level. Second, using these measures we are able to empirically test Huntington’s hypothesis that more professional soldiers should prefer to remain apolitical. Finally, we provide an uncommon glimpse at the opinions of Thai military officers regarding military interventions, adding to the relatively sparse body of literature on factors internal to the Thai military which push officers toward politics.

Meanwhile, at the Journal of Contemporary Asia, a third paper from the forthcoming Special Issue, Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand’s Authoritarian Turn, has been published. “Inequality, Wealth and Thailand’s Politics” is by well-known political economist Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit of Chulalongkorn University.

The abstract for the paper states:

Acemoglu and associates argue that resistance to democratisation will be stronger where inequality is high. Piketty shows that shifts at the upper end of the distribution may be historically more significant than overall measures of inequality. In Thailand, the high level of income inequality has eased slightly since 2000, but there is a ‘1% problem’ as peak incomes are growing faster than the average. Newly available data show that inequality of wealth is very high. At the top of the wealth pyramid, family holdings of commercial capital are growing. A significant proportion of top entrepreneurs have emerged within the past generation. A second tier of the wealth elite has developed over the past generation from rising property values, financial investments and professional incomes. Although their individual wealth is much less than the corporate elite, their numbers are much greater. The existence of the prospering ‘1%’ and the emergence of the second-tier wealthy may corroborate Acemoglu’s proposition, but there are tensions within the wealth elite which may favour democracy.





Thai-style anti-democracy

16 08 2014

A few days ago, Pravit Rojanaphruk at The Nation had a story on The Leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, and his speech last Saturday where he twice mentioned that “the country needs is ‘Thai-style democracy’.” Pravit rightly asks: What is Thai-style democracy? He begins by observing:

While Prayuth did not elaborate on the differences between Thai-style democracy and the so-called Western democracies, the fact that he used the words “Thai-style democracy”, and even added at one point that Asean needed its own form of democracy, has led some to suspect that what he meant was a new form of limited democracy and Asian values.

Naturally, by the use of the term “Thai-style democracy,” it will necessarily “deviate from what we expect from Western democracies.” Pravit argues that this Thai version of “democracy” is “about making semi-dictatorship seem more natural and palatable to Thais and the world.” What seems to be “Thai” about it is limited to the fact that it is a military dictatorship that is using the term to describe the deviation.

Pravit notes that “[c]alling it ‘Thai’ makes Thai-style democracy sound more natural and suitable for us…”. He wonders if Thai-style democracy is just another term for “semi-dictatorship.” He might have asked if it is just “Thai-style dictatorship.”

Academically, there have been attempts to delineate what “Thai-style democracy” is and why it was “invented.” [Some of the following links open and download PDFs] There’s this study after the 2006 coup, which PPT finds less than convincing, and Andrew Walker’s response to it. Federico Ferrara had it on the way out. Michael Connors had a discussion of it linked to ideology. Kevin Hewison and Kengkij Kitirianglarp spent time analyzing the concept of Thai-Style Democracy and wrote of its use by royalists.

In the end, Thai-style democracy is revealed as no democracy at all.

We think all of these are worth a read as they say quite a lot about the military dictatorship’s political direction.





Moving the monarchy on

12 03 2014

David Camroux at the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, has some comments on politics and the monarchy. He makes this point at the end of his post:

… The anti-government protesters and the military both claim to be ardent defenders of the Thai monarchy. Yet with the constant debasing of the rule of law (that is, the constitutional part of constitutional monarchy), they run the risk of weakening the very institution the claim to protect.

Thailand’s cult of the monarchy, created after World War II by the military leadership with some prompting from the CIA, could ultimately be counter-productive. Making the monarch the ultimate source of legitimacy has been successful because King Bhumiphol has been astute, respected and credible in the role of paternal authority figure above the fray. But if his successor is incapable of performing that role, then the unresolved questions of legitimacy and an inclusive political order will once again be posed.

We have no doubt that the present king was able to rehabilitate the monarchy and appear as some of the things Camroux claims thanks to media control, the lese majeste law and military repression, along with the American promotion of the monarchy as an anti-communist bulwark. His support of the 2006 military coup probably casts doubt on respect, credibility and showed that he wasn’t above any fray, but an active political player.

No successor is likely to be able to play that role. While a republic might be worth considering, at the moment, we tend to think, as Andrew Walker suggested some time ago albeit a little tongue-in-cheek, that a monarch who is less driven by concerns for political control and shaping a paternalistic idolatry might not be a bad thing.





On the election

2 02 2014

Some thoughts on the election from across the Web:

Andrew Walker at ANU: “Respecting the electorate’s judgement may be an impossibly bitter pill for the anti-government forces to swallow. But it would be in their interests to do so.”

Oddly, because we usually agree with Walker’s commentary, we find this piece a bit shallow. The election is important for the symbolic support of voting and elections in the face of threats to them. We do not think that anyone will “respect” the outcome for much more than this. Blame the Democrat Party and their monied supporters for that. Ironically, money has become a symbol of opposition to Thaksin-backed parties.

Money and noA Bangkok Post editorial is lukewarm at best: “Set against a background of tumultuous political conflicts and held despite strong opposition from many parties including the Election Commission (EC) itself, the general election today will be mired in controversy and will likely yield more questions than answers to the ongoing political strife….  Still, the poll is being held as decreed by law and no matter how imperfect it has been, voters nationwide have a duty to cast their ballots.”

At The Nation: It shows its royalist anti-democrat colors by having an editorial on Syria…. It did have an election editorial the previous day: “Whether you are for or against the election, we all a share common duty in preventing violence. ” The editorial seems to diminish the act of voting and to want to scare potential voters.

Prachatai had an election story a couple of days ago: “In many countries, an expression of political will through voting, despite inconveniences and danger, is seen as an admirable act: a fulfilment of a civic duty…. But here in Thailand, voters who fought obstructions and risk their safety to cast the ballots last Sunday were given different labels: ‘traitors’, ‘buffalos’ and ‘the uneducated’.”

Siam Voices made useful points: “As Thailand holds what is considered the most controversial elections in its recent history Sunday, the battle over the country’s future is being fought anywhere but at the ballot…. The anti-election thuggery of last Sunday spoke volumes, when mobs obstructed advance voting in all of Bangkok and parts of the South and thus denied their fellow Thai citizens their right to vote. And we have to expect more of that on election day…. Granted, this coming election won’t solve the political stalemate. But to deny your fellow countrymen the right to vote and to paint everybody who does cast their ballot as ‘traitorous’ is not the way forward…. We’re still battling over how we are going to define the future of our country – and more people should have more freedom to have their say, not less.”





Continuing the LM discussion

17 02 2013

There has been a long discussion of lese majeste and the role of journalists and academics (surprisingly rather limited because of the attention to foreigners in these categories). THe long trail is here: FCCT on lese majeste, Debating and damning lese majeste, Chiranuch at FCCT, Debating lese majeste and responses to it, Warped world royalism and lese majeste“Somyos should be the last one” and FCCT failure on media freedom.

Over the last week there have been additional comments at New Mandala by Andrew Walker, arguing about foreign commentators, political tactics and research practicalities, with the latter coming down to this:

I would not have been willing to be so outspoken [on lese majeste] as a more junior, and less experienced, scholar. The careers of  journalists and academics who work on Thailand are dependent on ongoing access to it. The idea that they should give up that access in order to speak truth to power is noble, but it is unrealistic.

Also at New Mandala, Kevin Hewison responds and takes issue with these comments and concludes with this:

In some very dark days, foreign support and commentary for those jailed for political offenses was important. Not all academics supported those political prisoners then and there are a wide range of academic motivations and political positions now. However, when some see “outrageous prison sentences” handed out for LM, I see no reason why outrage can’t be expressed. If that outrage drives some academic research and writing, some of it may be better for it and reveal that speaking the truth is noble.





Another lese majeste discussion

18 06 2012

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand announces yet another discussion of Article 112 (details below).

Professor Thongchai Winichakul and Dr. Andrew Walker organized a a petition signed by numerous leading figures in human rights, civil liberties and academia to then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. It argued that “frequent abuse of the lese majeste law against political opponents undermines democratic processes” and generates “heightened criticism of the monarchy and Thailand itself, both inside and outside the country.”

Today, the law remains unchanged.  At the same time, debate over lese majeste has deepened. The ” law is increasingly an emotional and politically explosive fault line.”

Walker and Thongchai will speak at the FCCT again via video conference, “to review what has transpired since, and assess what may lie in store in the future.”

Responding from the FCCT itself and joining the discussion, will be

Dr Chaichana Inkawat, professor of the Faculty of Political Science at Ramkhamhaeng University. A graduate of Thammasat University and a Fulbright Scholar to Cornell University, Dr Chaichana has been faculty at Ramkamheng University for almost four decades. He is also a regular political contributor to independent and state-owned current affairs programmes in Thailand.

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director, Prachatai.com, found guilty with a suspended sentence recently, under the Computer Crimes Act for not removing allegedly lese majeste comments from the website quickly enough. Ms Chiranuch is the winner of the International Women’s Media foundation’s 2011 Courage in Journalism award.

Pricing Details:

Members: No cover charge, buffet dinner is 350 baht

Non-members: 300 baht cover charge without buffet dinner or 650 baht for buffet dinner including cover charge

Reservations: To ensure sufficient food for the buffet, we would greatly appreciate your making a buffet reservation at least one day before the program if you plan to join us for the dinner. (No penalty for cancellation if last minute conflicts arise.) Please also note that tables/seats will be reserved only for those with advance buffet bookings. To reserve, please call 02-652-0580-1 or click here to send an e-mail to info@fccthai.com.

Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, Penthouse, Maneeya Center Building, 518/5 Ploenchit Road (connected to the BTS Skytrain Chitlom station), Patumwan, Bangkok 10330. Tel.: 02-652-0580; E-mail: info@fccthai.com; Web Site: http://www.fccthai.com





Somsak’s LM case continues to get international attention

6 06 2011

Somsak Jeamteerasakul’s case continues to gain international attention and generate concern. The latest story is a long one in the prestigious and well-read weekly, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Having the story covered in this paper means that tens of thousands are being apprised of the pernicious use of lese majeste in Thailand.

Much of the story will already be known to regular PPT readers.

Somsak is introduced as a history professor at Thammasat University, who “believes that Thailand’s monarchy should be reformed. He says the revered institution should be made more open, showing, for example, its financial books to the public. He also recently questioned what he called the political leanings of a princess. He does not call for the monarchy to be abolished but would like to see it modernized.”

It is noted that “elsewhere [Somsak would] be entitled to publish his scholarly writings and be shielded by notions of academic freedom, it is a different story altogether in his native Thailand.” Lese majeste prevails to prevent freedom of speech.

Somsak is cited as saying that the “law is used to intimidate those who oppose the establishment, and that he has been personally threatened.” One overseas scholar is cited as saying that “he has faced pressure from the Thai government to avoid such sensitive issues.”

The article mentions c=the related cases of Harry Nicolaides, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, and most recently, “Thai-born U.S. citizen who calls himself Joe Gordon was arrested here, charged with posting translations from an unauthorized biography of the Thai king that is banned. The book, written by the journalist Paul Handley, was published by Yale University Press in 2006; the Thai government subsequently blocked the university’s Web site.”

David Streckfuss is cited on the law having “a chilling effect on speech, but [that] the Somsak case may also be causing a backlash of sorts.” He observes: “There’s both more indiscriminate use of the law and at the same time a greater boldness…. People are pushing the line.” He adds: “There’s a new generation of activists who are not willing to back down…. There’s a newfound boldness that has the promise of opening up formerly academic issues to greater Thai society.”

Andrew Walker at the Australian National University says there is “persistent caution in the international academic community” because scholars do not want to endanger their access to Thailand. He might have added that the Thai elite rewards those who bolster the royalist position. PPT can think of those who regularly have the U.S. Department of State’s ear.

This is a big story, but PPT can’t help wondering if the royalist elite is politically deaf on this issue.





Radio Australia and the election

6 05 2011

In a story-interview about Thailand’s forthcoming election, this exchange between interviewer Karen Snowden and the ANU’s Andrew Walker caught PPT’s eye:

SNOWDON: The dissolving of parliament ahead of setting the election date was expected this week, but has been delayed. Andrew Walker says most commentators still expect the election to be held by July and constitutionally it must be held by the end of the year — but nothing is certain yet.

WALKER: This is Thai politics and nothing can be relied on here. And we need to remember that there are some powerful forces in Thailand that would rather that an election doesn’t go ahead because they’re worried that the political allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra will win the election. In particular there’s many very powerful and very senior people in the army who would rather not have an election and some people have speculated that the army might try to escalate this border conflict they’re having with Cambodia so that could be used as a pretext for delaying the election.

SNOWDON: Would that be Prime Minister Abhisit’s view do you believe?

WALKER: Look its very hard to predict what Prime Minister Abhisit’s view is. He’s obviously very concerned his party won’t win the election. He’s got some hopes of being able to cobble together a coalition government after the election. But the fact is that Abhisit is caught between some very powerful players. He was brought in to government with the strong backing of the military and the Palace and it’s probably the military and the Palace in Thailand who are most nervous about an election so I’m sure Abhisit is getting a lot of heat about that.

The latest news on the election seems to be that it will be announced Friday. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says “he had yet to submit the decree on House dissolution for royal endorsement,” but had scheduled a television address for Friday.

He added that he “had made a ‘discreet inquiry’ with the Royal Palace about the appropriate time to bring the decree to the King’s attention,” and he “pointed out that on that night, a royal command had been issued approving the appointment of Senate Speaker Teeradej Meepien.” In other words, Abhisit thinks the king is up for signing off on an election decree.





Walker and Farrelly on Abhisit, politics and monarchy

27 08 2010

Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly are at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, where they co-founded the blog New Mandala in 2006. They have an opinion piece on Thailand’s recent politics in Australia’s Inside Story. It is worth reading in full. A taster:

For much of this [turbulent political] period the king himself has been in frail health and rarely seen in public. He never publicly endorsed the yellow-shirt campaign but nor did he, or his confidants, make any attempt to voice disapproval about increasingly anti-democratic uses of the royal brand. Queen Sirikit has been much more open in her support for the anti-Thaksin forces. A pivotal moment in public perceptions of the monarchy came when she attended the funeral of a yellow-shirt protester killed in a violent clash with police. In a powerful blow to the palace’s carefully cultivated imagery, Thailand’s queen stood shoulder-to-shoulder with yellow-shirt leaders who were calling for the forcible overthrow of an elected government.

Inevitably, royal entanglement in politics has generated comment, and some dismay, locally and internationally. Abhisit has done whatever he can to keep a lid on the criticism. Among the many legal tools his government has enthusiastically deployed, the lèse majesté provision of the criminal code is the most potent. Lengthy jail terms have been handed to those who have challenged the supposed sanctity of the royal institution. Though Abhisit has paid lip service to international calls for reform of this draconian law, his government has shown no sign of backing off from heavy-handed repression of free speech when it comes to royal matters. Soft power may also play a part. There is talk of Abhisit’s government funding a Thai studies centre in Australia, presumably in an attempt to get some more sympathetic international discussion of sensitive issues.