THAILAND: Silence of the academic community

Universities in Bangkok will be opening now. Because the anti-government Red Shirts were crushed with violence last month and 80 or so people killed, I don't think there will be any immediate activity by the students.

People will be discussing very heatedly among themselves. Students will be worried about writing an essay criticising the status quo and any academic who thought they might encourage argument and debate will keep quiet.

If you're not particularly politically active, you won't notice any difference. There will still be university seminars but they won't be discussing why the King did not come out and say something about the killings.

They will not be discussing if the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva was genuinely democratically elected. And they will not be discussing what kind of society Thailand should be in the future.

In the department of political science and in the department of history you can't really function unless you discuss things of this nature. So academics have avoided discussing some of the fundamental issues in Thailand. There is a long tradition of avoiding and stifling free thinking and debate.

I had to leave Thailand in 2009 because I wrote a book criticising the 2006 military coup. I said the coup received legitimacy from the King. In my opinion it is impossible to write a book criticising the coup without trying to discuss the role of the monarchy in protecting or not protecting democracy in Thailand.

I was charged with lese-majesty for insulting the King which I didn't do but this law is being used by various elites to try to silence the opposition. You can go to prison for up to 15 years for lese-majesty but if you write two separate sentences in one book you might be sentenced to 30 years.

The trials are held in secret and no one is allowed to publish what the person said so there is no transparency in this process. I am in exile but I have not committed what would be internationally regarded as a criminal offence.

I only wrote a book defending democracy! Chulalongkorn University, where I was an assistant professor in the department of political science, started out by refusing to sell my book in the university bookshop even though they have sold numerous other books of mine in the past.

The university actually gave my book to [Thailand's] Special Branch: this shows there is no real academic freedom. The bookshop is part of the university; its management committee is made up of university officials and the deputy rector was chair of the management committee.

More recently, Professor Suthachai Yomprasert in the history department at Chulalongkorn was accused by the military command of plotting to overthrow the monarchy. (see University World News)

Last month, just after the crackdown, Suthachai was summoned to report to the army and was detained without charge. Many others are still in detention but, because of a big campaign within Thailand and abroad, the authorities were forced to release him on 31 May.

Suthachai will be facing charges, probably terrorism. He is an open supporter of the Red Shirts but anyone who knows him knows he is not a terrorist. He uses his brains and his writing to support democracy.

The vast majority of the academics in Thailand have sided with the military and the royalist Yellow Shirts. Ordinary people have been protesting on the side of the (pro-democracy) Red Shirts and their strength of numbers has given some academics encouragement.

But university lecturers who side with the Red Shirts have become targets of the military whereas academics who side with the Yellow Shirts do not face punishment even though they closed down the international airport. It is the Red Shirts who are facing charges of terrorism and sanctions for attempting to overthrow the monarchy.

When the universities were completely bound by the state there was at least a feeling that academics had a degree of freedom. So-called university autonomy, basically the introduction of market forces, was resisted for a long time in Thai universities.

It was only after the 2006 coup, during the 2006-07 military junta, that university autonomy was pushed through a military-appointed parliament. The rectors of all the main universities were part of this parliament.

Academics who sympathised with the Red Shirts may find they have difficulty getting their contracts renewed, if they are on short-term contracts brought in as part of the new university autonomy.

But I doubt we will see mass firings because most of them have either kept their heads down or they support the royalists and the 2006 coup d'etat.

It was shocking for me that the majority of my colleagues in the faculty of political science, people who teach subjects such as democratisation, sided with the coup d'etat that overthrew the elected government. There is no debate over whether or not you should oppose a government you don't like through democratic means.

But it is not because they are afraid for their jobs the majority of academics have chosen to side with the Yellow Shirts. I think it is a middle-class thing. The middle classes in Bangkok may be irritated from time to time by corruption and authoritarianism, but in general they are doing quite well and they see the Red Shirts as a bunch of ignorant poor workers and farmers.

They are afraid this movement will challenge their wellbeing and result in a redistribution of wealth.

The military and the government have won this particular round and the struggle for democracy has taken a setback. The Red Shirts are regrouping at grass-roots level but it is the status quo that now prevails.

* Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a former assistant professor in the department of political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. An update of the book for which he was charged with lese-majesty, Thailand's Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, was published in the UK in April. He spoke with University World News correspondent Yojana Sharma for this report.