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Thailand's Military Stops University Lecture on ‘Authoritarianism’ and Detains Professors

About a hundred students of Thammasat University joined the planned lecture on authoritarianism. Photo from Prachatai website.

About a hundred students of Thammasat University joined the planned lecture on authoritarianism. Photo from Prachatai website. Used with permission.

Last week a group of students at the prestigious Thammasat University hosted a public lecture on “the collapse of authoritarian regimes in other countries”. While the discussion was presumably focused on other countries, the government seemed to decide the topic was too close to the current situation in Thailand and shut it down

Thailand's incumbent Prime Minister is the army chief who staged a coup in May. The army subsequently drafted a constitution, appointed members of the legislative assembly, and designated the coup leader as the country's head of state. Despite the appointment of a new government body, the army continues to ban protest actions and public gathering of five or more people, aside from strictly monitoring and controlling the mainstream press. Those who defy the army are threatened with prosecution and even imprisonment.

The military asked the public lecture to be cancelled and the university complied by locking the lecture hall. The students then moved downstairs to the open hall way. The lecture was given by a senior history professor Nidhi Eaowsriwong , and a popular political science lecturer Prajak Kongkirati. The police tried to ask the event to be cancelled but failed, so they asked the speakers and hosting students to go to a local police station.  The station was promptly guarded by military personnel.

Students provided first-hand accounts of the situation on Twitter:

The academics who were asked by authorities to be at the [local] police station, as far as we know, are Nidhi Eaowsriwong, Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, Prajak Kongkirati

The academics who were taken by authorities are Nidhi Eaowsriwong, Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, Prajak Kongkirati

Having a good time at the local police station

While the Thai Prime Minister described the detention as an “invitation” to a police station, The Bangkok post reports that the participants received an “attitude adjustment” while in custody.

Scholars from 16 universities signed a statement condemning the action taken by the military:

As academics from 16 universities in Thailand, we condemn the the military and the police for intimidating academics and students within a university premise. The action by the military and the police clearly constitutes a severe infringement of academic freedom, and is absolutely unacceptable.

The excuse that the panel discussion might harm national security is groundless. Academic discussions like the one at Thammsat University have always been a regular, normal affair, and have never proved to harm national security.

Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, urged the government to end the crackdown on academic freedom:

While telling the world that they are not dictators, the Thai military authorities are extending their grip into universities and banning discussions about democracy and human rights. Prime Minister Prayuth should immediately end this crackdown on academic freedom and free speech.

The incident is another sign of the continuing deterioration of human rights protection, academic freedom, and free speech in Thailand under a military-backed government. But it is also proof that many groups and citizens are quietly asserting the return of normalcy and democratic rights in the country.

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