A professor who organised an international conference on Thai studies and four Thai academics and participants attending the conference have been charged with violating the military junta’s ban on political gatherings of more than five people.
The charges were communicated on 14 August, a month after the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies was held on 15-18 July at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand. The conference has been held every three years since 1981, including being hosted by universities outside Thailand, but it is the first time it has experienced interference from the Thai authorities.
Among those charged is conference organiser Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, director of the Regional Centre for Social Science and Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University. Others include Chaipong Samniang, a sociology lecturer at the university, Nontawat Machai and Thiramon Buangam, who are students at the university, and Pakawadee Veerapatpong, a respected translator who was a panellist at the conference and a member of the Thai Academic Network for Civil Rights.
According to official documents, the deputy commander of the 33rd Military Circle of Chiang Mai, Col Suebsakul Buarawong, filed the charges, accusing the five of violating the junta’s order number 3/2015, which prohibits political gatherings of more than five people.
If found guilty, they will be imprisoned for at least six months and-or fined THB10,000 (US$300). The order also stated charges could be dropped if they agree to undergo a “training” with the authorities, also known as ‘attitude adjustment’ for a maximum of seven days.
Thiramon, who was among those charged, said academic sessions that included critical debates on the Thai political system were especially monitored by plainclothes police and military officers.
“As the presenters and participants at the conference were discussing and exchanging opinions, these plainclothes officers kept monitoring the conversation and took photos of the speakers, creating a threatening environment for everyone,” he told University World News.
In a joint statement issued on 17 July at the conference, some 176 Thai and foreign academics had called on the junta to give people back the freedom to express opinions without fear of punishment or reprisal. They wanted full and free access to information and facts, and said prisoners of conscience jailed for their religious, political or other views should be released from jail, among other issues.
It is thought the four participants were charged after a photograph of them holding up a banner protesting military surveillance at the conference was posted on Facebook. Chayan stated he did not participate in the action.
Chayan has been quoted by local media as saying he did not ask for permission from the military to organise the event in the first place as it was academic-based and he has insisted no political activities had been held at the conference.
After the charges were made public, Human Rights Watch and dozens of Thai civil society organisations called for the charges to be dropped.
“Government censorship and military surveillance have no place at an academic conference,” said Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams. “By prosecuting a conference organiser and participants, the Thai junta is showing the world its utter contempt for academic freedom and other liberties,” Adams said.
“Academics worldwide should call for the trumped-up charges against Professor Chayan and the four conference attendees to be dropped immediately,” Adams said. “Thailand faces a dim future if speech is censored, academic criticism is punished, and political discussions are banned even inside a university.”
In October 2015, eight academics faced similar charges for holding a press conference opposing the junta’s policies which they said interfered in the university curriculum, after a junta order to the Ministry of Education claiming some university lecturers were ‘abusing the curriculum’ to teach students to oppose the regime.
Six out of eight of the academics at the time opted to undergo ‘attitude adjustment’ in which they had to sign agreements not to be involved in future political activity. The charges were later dismissed.
However, charges were not dropped against two Chiang Mai University lecturers who insisted on their right to freedom of expression. The cases are still ongoing.
The close monitoring of academic discussion and public forums has become the norm since the junta took over after the May 2014 coup, according to academics. Hundreds of public panels, talks and community meetings have had to be cancelled.
At least 157 planned civil and academic gatherings and activities have been intervened in or prohibited by the National Council for Peace and Order as the junta is known, according to iLaw, a civil society group that monitors law-making and law enforcement.
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