Hundreds of scholars and researchers around the world have signed an open letter addressed to the government of Thailand appealing for the withdrawal of charges against five local academics accused of violating the ban on political assemblies.
The case was filed by an army officer after the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies took place successfully in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, on July 15-18, 2017. The conference, held every three years, attracted 1,224 participants this year and was hosted by universities in Thailand, Australia, China, India, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The Thai government has accused conference organizer Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of holding a political assembly after some participants staged a protest by raising a placard reading, “An academic forum is not a military camp.” Col Suebsakul Buarawong, deputy commander of the 33rd Military Circle in Chiang Mai, subsequently identified and charged academics Pakawadee Veerapatpong, Chaipong Samnieng, Nontawat Machai, and Thiramon Bua-ngam for violating the law.
Thailand's army grabbed power in 2014 and continues to rule through its constitution drafted in 2016. It vowed to restore civilian rule once political and electoral reforms have been implemented. Since 2014, the military junta has strictly regulated the media and forced some reporters to undergo “attitude-adjustment” sessions. It has also outlawed protests and prohibited the political gathering of five or more people through Order No.3/2015 which remains in effect.
As of this writing, 418 scholars have signed the statement describing Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti as a “deeply respected academic within academia, civil society and within Thai government ministries.”
The statement has three demands: “immediately withdraw the summons” against the five conference participants; “support academics and students in their conduct of scholarly teaching, research, public discussion and debate, on- and off-campus;” and “ease the restriction on free and open discussion on pressing issues of concern to the wider Thai public.”
Meanwhile, 291 conference attendees have already signed a similar statement urging the government to drop the charges. The statement also mentioned that the conference proper “was marred by the intimidating presence of uniformed and non-uniformed security personnel.”
According to a joint statement released by several human rights groups in the Asia-Pacific, it was the military surveillance during the event which prompted some conference participants to raise a protest placard:
The conference participants who are being charged for holding posters did so to send a message to plainclothes soldiers and police who entered the conference venue unidentified, disregarding a conference rule requiring name badges, intruding on discussions, and photographing people without their consent.
Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti told police that the protest was not part of the conference program. He insisted that because the event is not a political assembly, conference organizers are not obliged to secure military approval.
Ploenpote Atthakor, the editorial pages editor of Bangkok Post newspaper, criticized the decision to prosecute the conference organizer and four of the participants:
This is not the first time we've heard of state intimidation against those advocating academic freedom and freedom of expression. The form may be different, but the goal is just the same: to silence those with different opinions.
Whatever the reason, this has raised quite a few questions: How can we achieve reform when the state still treats those who voice concern about public issues as its enemies?
How far can we go on this reform path when the authorities use all the mechanisms they can to muzzle the people?
The Scholars at Risk international network also released a statement expressing support to the five Thai academics.