Thai protest movement a test for academic freedom

Government issues arrest warrants for students and files complaint against an overseas academic as protests, some held on university campuses, intensify 

August 24, 2020
Source: iStock
A protest at Kasetsart University in Bangkok in February.

Thai university campuses have become a key battleground in the largest anti-government movement the country has seen since 2014, when a military junta overthrew the government.

Protests, which have been taking place sporadically for months, reached a peak in August when thousands attended rallies in and around Bangkok, including on university campuses and at the education ministry. The largely youth-driven events have included hip hop performances, use of cartoon characters and internet memes. 

Demonstrators have demanded the resignation of the prime minister, the dissolution of parliament, a redrafting of the constitution and an amendment to a lese-majesty law that controls commentary and criticism of the royal family.

Nattapol Teepsuwan, the education minister, said on 17 August that students could express opinions but asked them to refrain from making disrespectful gestures towards school staff. He also said that students could be arrested on campus if they violated laws. 

On 19 August, the authorities issued arrest warrants for participants in an earlier demonstration at Thammasat University. They also filed a complaint against Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a politics professor at Kyoto University in Japan, for opening a popular Facebook page with commentary on the monarchy. A Thai academic currently in exile, Professor Pavin said he had previously been served an arrest warrant and had his passport revoked.

“The government continues to harass me,” he told Times Higher Education. “They might not be able to silence me while I am in Japan, but the fact is that they punished me harshly, possibly to use my case against other challenging academics who may think of criticising the monarchy.”

This is not the first time the authorities have tried to control academics on social media. In 2017, Thailand charged six people in relation to a Facebook post by Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a Thai historian in exile in France.

Professor Pavin said that the boundaries of Thai academic freedom are “unknown…but scholars understand that talking about the monarchy, particularly criticising it, could be illegal under a lese-majesty law. Some academics then try not to talk about the issue or practise self-censorship.”

As for the current protests, “one could say that they are a turning point since they are the first of their kind. But I am not sure how far these demands would go,” he said.

Saowanee Alexander, an assistant professor at Ubon Ratchathani University in the country’s northeast who studies the relationship between language and politics, told THE that “the protests are for people’s freedoms in general. Thai academics who are involved in these protests, in whatever capacity, have been critical of the government since the [2014] coup and have been intimidated in different ways.”

“When it comes to academic freedom – in the sense that the Thai education system would allow the decentralisation of curriculum design and instruction – it is unlikely to happen soon,” she said. “A well-ingrained system of traditional beliefs about what to learn and how to learn it lies at the heart of Thai education.”

James Buchanan, a visiting lecturer at Mahidol University International College and a PhD candidate studying Thai politics at City University of Hong Kong, described to THE a rally of more than 1,000 students he witnessed on 18 August.

“It was professional, with an impressive stage and sound set-up and talented MCs,” he said, adding that it included music performances and activities. “The political speeches were provocative but managed to stay on just the right side of the ‘red line’ regarding the highly sensitive issue of the monarchy − which was no doubt a concern for the organisers.”

Mahidol University, a top-ranked institution in Thailand, said in advance that it would not allow the event, but it did not prevent it from going ahead either.

“Academic freedom is definitely an issue in Thailand,” Mr Buchanan said. “Both in and even outside Thailand, fear of lese-majesty has sometimes impeded the work of academics. Some academics may choose to self-censor or avoid research on certain topics, while others have chosen to write using pseudonyms. And conferences on sensitive topics can often be rather tense affairs.

“But we’re now seeing a strong desire in the recent Thai protests to break these taboos, and the academic community − both in Thailand and scholars of Thailand abroad − have a duty to keep up with that.” 

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