'Nervous' Thai military uneasy with academic freedom

Thailand's military has reacted uneasily towards academic freedom, particularly if they believe seminars or events could foment unrest.
Thailand's military has reacted uneasily towards academic freedom, particularly if they believe seminars or events could foment unrest.PHOTO: ST FILE

BANGKOK - Ekachai Chainuvati, a 41-year-old Thai law professor, and his academic colleagues have a new inside joke.

 In the past, they would worry about low attendance at university seminars, but now they have no problem;  army and police officers sent to monitor them swell attendance.

 ''We should be grateful,'' Professor Ekachai quips. ''They are very polite. They don't speak or chat. They play with their mobile phones,'' the deputy dean of the law faculty at Siam University recently told audience at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT).  

 The event - a panel discussion on academic freedom under Thailand's military government - made the news even before it was held, when military and police officers arrived at the FCCT to discuss it just a few hours before it was scheduled to start.

 Word went around that the event was in danger of cancellation; the regime had forced cancellations of events at the FCCT before.

 But after an almost two-hour discussion, in which the military's concerns about the event triggering "unrest'' were assuaged by FCCT President and BBC correspondent Jonathan Head, the military agreed to let the club hold the event. 

"They are nervous about protests but they are allowing us to go ahead," Mr Head said.

 Professor Titipol Phakdeewanich, from the faculty of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University, who was present at the meeting, wrote later in the Bangkok Post: "During this discussion, we were made familiar with the little understood, but increasingly used, Article 116 of the Criminal Law (which covers sedition and inciting dissent), and the potential consequences of violating it.''

 "This was rather intimidating, since breaches are subject to interpretation by the NCPO,'' he wrote, referring to the National Council for Peace and Order, which is the official name of the Thai junta. 

The military's keen interest - it sent some half a dozen men to the FCCT for the event itself - echoed the state of academic freedom in Thailand since then army chief and now Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-o-cha seized power in May 2014.

 The royalist regime which has launched a wide crackdown on critics of the monarchy is well entrenched and shows no signs of ceding power any time before 2017.  

 The space is becoming narrower and narrower, academics say - but usually only if one is in the fields of law or political science.

Asked how this was being manifested, a noted Thai academic who asked not to be named, wrote separately in an email : "Self censorship; restraint on organising events; and direct intimidation.''

 University seminars are "closely monitored'' by the military, said the academics at the FCCT panel, which also included Pongkwan Sawasdiphakdi, a lecturer on international relations at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

 The three young professors, aged 27 to 42, gave a string of instances when the military had "visited'' before, during or after seminars, sometimes asking why seminars had to be held at all.

 These included a seminar on the work of Nobel Prize winning professor Amartya Sen. The military mistook the name Amartya for the Thai word "amaat'' - used by anti-military "red shirt'' ideologues to describe Bangkok's aristocratic and establishment elites whom they say backed the military's interventions against elected governments in 2006 and 2014.

 A human trafficking seminar planned for last year had attracted the attention of the NCPO as well. The day after the event, the faculty had a "visit'', Prof Titipol said.

 "This is the kind of intimidation,'' he said. "I don't think it's normal to have military walking in the university campus or driving around in a Humvee truck.''

 Conversely, when one seminar focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, the Ubon Ratchathani political science faculty received a letter from the military thanking it for not focusing on political issues.

 "The problem is we have to explain why we are doing what we are doing,'' said Prof Titipol. "In general terms as a political scientist I don't think I have to explain to anyone..  why I have to teach about democracy, why I have to talk about human rights - because my area of study is political science.''

 "The military perceives the faculty of political science as a threat to authority because we are dealing with political issues. I have to explain that this is the nature of our study, and students have been working on these areas even before the coup of 2014.''