THAILAND: Close watch on students' 'political' plays

After censoring the news media and internet in the wake of the May crackdown, the Thai government has turned its sights on campus plays for signs of political dissent. Seemingly innocuous and entertaining amateur dramatics by students have come under scrutiny by the nervous authorities, who fear they may contain seditious ideas or affect national security.

Thailand's university rectors must keep watch over student plays that could contain "distorted political content and incite unrest and divisiveness in society", according to the government's Higher Education Commission (HEC) in a recent letter sent to all universities and circulated to faculty members last week.

Campus plays are extremely popular in Thailand with students creating and staging plays regularly, some faculties as often as once a semester, as part of a student club or association. Many of the plays are partly subsidised by the universities from public funds and sometimes have a faculty member as an advisor to oversee the play, hence the circular directed at staff.

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The HEC said it had received complaints about student plays that might be used to convey political opinions. But it refused to name any universities involved or the nature of the political content.

The HEC circular, issued at the end of July but circulated in universities during August, said it was universities' responsibility to monitor such activities and "ensure their content is politically neutral".

"Efforts should be made to raise understanding among all students to foster reconciliation, unity and peacefulness in the country," the circular added.

But university staff said student dramatics were apolitical.

"I have not heard of any student plays at all that have been controversial, and I have seen many of the plays at our university," said Suda Rangkupan, a linguistics lecturer at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "They are just entertainment. I don't see why (the authorities) needed to issue such a circular."

Parinya Thewanaruemitrakul, Deputy Rector for student affairs at Bangkok's Thammasat University, said student rights and freedoms should be respected.

He told Thai newspapers that the government circular might be well-intentioned but could cause problems in some universities if they interpreted it "in ways that affect the rights and freedoms of students, as political neutrality means different things to different people."

He argued that adults should not clamp down on the political expression of students. Referring to the Redshirt anti-government movement and the Yellowshirt pro-monarchists, he said "students do not express themselves according to Red or Yellow but according to the facts."

However Kanlaya Tingsaphat, Deputy Rector at Chulalongkorn University, said his institution had had no problems complying with the letter. "We have spoken to students and staff to help them understand that now is the time to focus on activities that emphasise harmony rather than division."

Students said the government circular came as a surprise.

"This is very puzzling. These days student plays are never about politics," said Suluck Lamubol, a history student at Chulalongkorn University and member of the Students Federation of Thailand. "This circular has been widely criticised by students who said it is infringing on their rights," she told University World News.

"But I think it may be because of the 1970s student uprising when a play staged at Thammasat University [in Bangkok] was the main cause of unrest," Suluck said. She added that students were willing to demonstrate publicly if any play was actually banned.

Although no particular play has been singled out for government attention, students suggested that a play at Thammasat University called 'Dalit' about low-caste people in India, may have been interpreted by nervy officials as mirroring class issues in Thai society.

This is a sensitive topic because the Redshirt anti-government uprising that led to the bloody crackdown in Bangkok in May, is a class-based movement with roots in the lower classes and farming communities.

Days after the circular was made public, government officials were quick to say it did not amount to a ban on student productions.

Education Minister Chinavorn Boonyakiat said the state had no intention of controlling or censoring the content of plays. But he nonetheless requested universities to try not to "hold activities" which were not "reconciliatory".

The timing of the circular was not explained. However after a period of calm since May, when university students and staff have kept well away from political issues on campus, students have been reporting sporadic group activities and anti-government protests.

Student groups reported that the protests had no leaders and dissipated quickly. Other than that there was no political activity on campus, they said.

Independent theatre groups not linked to universities staged short plays during the Redshirt demonstrations earlier this year, criticising the government through drama at events and other gatherings.