Friday, May 27, 2011

Thai Authorities Attack Academic Freedom Abroad

An increasingly prickly government tries to pressure overseas institutions to limit criticism of Bangkok

In the past few years, politics has aggressively intruded into Thailand’s academic community, compelling scholars to defend themselves and to protect their integrity in the face of virulent measures endorsed by the Thai government.

Evidently the authorities have prioritized the need to contain the scope of public debate on certain issues, especially if those issues could potentially harm their power interests. Accordingly, they have gone to considerable lengths to dictate to a large number of scholars to conform to certain viewpoints acceptable to the government

It is much easier to control scholars who work in Thailand because of the state's effective legal mechanisms. That is underscored by the recent arrest of Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a history professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok. Debates deemed as a "threat to national security," such as on the monarchy, have never been allowed. These scholars have therefore worked under extreme difficulty in maintaining their academic veracity within an increasingly authoritarian environment.

However, controlling scholars outside Thailand is a more intricate and problematic task for the authorities. The Thai embassies around the world have been assigned as watchdogs in monitoring those who do not conform to the government's political ideology. They have been instructed to use the existing government-to-government ties to put pressure on foreign academic institutions, and indeed on individual scholars who have been critical of the Thai government.

It is all too convenient for the authorities to depict their critics as "enemies of the state". And this can only prove that Thai representatives abroad have failed to distinguish between public debate and reasonable opinion on the one hand, and seditious activity on the other. Little do the authorities realize that they do not have sovereign rights beyond the Thai borders. Most academic institutions elsewhere in the world are autonomous and do not receive orders from their own governments, and certainly not from any foreign government.

There are currently several incidents involving the authorities' interference in the academic community, both here in Thailand and overseas.

Thammasat’s Somsak was accused of committing lese-majeste even when he repeatedly said that his views on the monarchy were intrinsically academic and that he did not violate Article 112 of Thailand's Criminal Code. Hundreds of Thai and foreign academics overseas have signed an open letter protesting against what they called "the latest signal of the worsening atmosphere of freedom of expression in Thailand". Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva earlier pledged, "Academic criticism is tolerated". But so far, he has been silent in the Somsak case.

What happened to Somsak serves to remind Thais that the authorities' meddling in academia has been an ongoing process. In 2006, when the Thai government learned that Yale University Press was planning to publish Paul Handley's "The King Never Smiles", it hired the former US President George HW Bush to lobby against publication. But Bush failed to stop it. The board committees of Yale University Press stated that Handley's manuscript was a genuine academic study and that it must be saved from political intervention.

From the US to Australia, Thai authorities continue to apply pressure on academic institutions accused of supporting "anti-establishment attitudes". In an interview with the founders of New Mandala, a well-known academic website managed by the prestigious Australian National University (ANU) and dedicated to vigorous scholarly discussions on important issues affecting Southeast Asia, including political development in Thailand, it was revealed that the Thai government strongly expressed displeasure at contents on the website perceived as inappropriate to certain institutions.

New Mandala revealed that the Thai Embassy in Canberra has been involved with forceful representations to the ANU, to leading personalities associated with the university and to senior officials in the Australian government, to pressure the Web team to refrain from encouraging academic debates on "sensitive issues" concerning Thailand. Some of the lobbying and representations have taken place via the Australia-Thailand Institute (ATI), a state-to-state platform for the promotion of bilateral relations between the two countries, set up in 2005.

Founders of New Mandala said in the interview: "The embassy indicated to some members of the ANU community that they should not expect cooperation from Thai government agencies or officials in Thailand, given that they are from the ANU. Thai students, both at ANU and elsewhere, have been warned not to have contact with New Mandala. Those associated with New Mandala are not welcome in Thailand. It has also been reported that the ANU was offered Thai government funding for a Thai studies center, on the unstated but obvious condition that New Mandala's critical activities cease. The ANU declined the offer and, as reported, the financial support went to Melbourne University instead."

The cases above show that Thai and foreign academic institutions have become "victims" in the government's process of preserving its power position.

Academics, both inside and outside of Thailand, are appalled by the government's "global initiatives" to suppress serious academic discussions on a myriad of issues regarding the Thai crisis. By limiting free academic expression in so blatant a fashion, the authorities seem to have proven the scholars' critical views of the undemocratic nature of the Thai government.

Perhaps government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn, a one-time scholar, may be able to give advice to the Democrat Party, especially during this election campaign, to keep the academic sphere unhindered if it wants to exhibit its respect for freedom of expression. By Pavin Chachavalpongpun visiting lecturer in the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore

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