THAILAND: New rulers must act on academic freedom

Last week Norawase Yotpiyasatien, a student from Kasetsart University in Bangkok, was arrested under the draconian lèse majesté law and 2007 Computer Crimes Act against online material deemed harmful to the state, for downloading an article from the internet onto his computer.

The use of the lèse majesté law, which makes criticising Thailand's monarchy a criminal offence, and the associated censorship is bad enough.

But what is an absolute disgrace is that it was the Deputy Rector of Kasetsart University, Nipon Limlamtong, who filed charges against the student with the police. Nipon has special responsibility for student activities. In other words, he is there to enforce censorship and prevent academic freedom in the university.

The newly-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, who was proclaimed prime minister on 5 August, needs to show that it is serious about democratic reforms. At the moment the election has not made any difference - a student charged with lèse majesté only confirms this.

The new government apparently believes it is best not to challenge the powers that be.

Throughout the election campaign, and even now, the Yingluk Shinawatra government showed no indication of wanting to challenge the military or the palace. The military would accuse her of trying to overthrow the monarch if the government tried to abolish the law.

This is not the first time that Thai universities have behaved like this.

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 and I raised the question of whether or not the King of Thailand should defend the country's constitution and democracy.

Again, it was the management of Chulalongkorn University, where I worked as a politics lecturer, that gave my book to the police special branch. In my opinion it is impossible to write a book criticising the coup without trying to discuss the role of the monarchy, and any politics academic who ignores this or supports military coups is not fit to teach students in a politics department.

I was charged with lèse majesté for "insulting the King", which I did not do, but this law was used against me because I opposed the military coup. Since the coup, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of the law to try to silence opposition.

Many Red Shirt (opposition) activists are languishing in jail on lèse majesté charges and Dr Somsak Jeamteerasakul from the history department at Thammasat University is also facing the threat of lèse majesté.

Academic freedom for lecturers and students is not just a luxury for the few. Without academic freedom there can be no high standards of enquiry and research, and societies without academic freedom are societies without democracy.

It is time to scrap the lèse majesté law and end censorship of all kinds. Political prisoners must be immediately released and all charges dropped. The head of the army should be sacked and the generals and politicians who ordered the killings of unarmed pro-democracy Red Shirts last year must be brought to court, just like Mubarak in Egypt.

The military has killed unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators in Thailand in 2010, 2004, 1992, 1976 and 1973. No one has ever been punished. It has also staged numerous military coups against elected governments. It continues to intervene in politics by using the monarchy to legitimise its actions. That is why lèse majesté is a very important tool for the military.

Yet the priority of the new Yingluck Shinawatra government is to carry on as if the 2006 military coup, which ousted her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, never took place. The new prime minister has done nothing to address the serious crisis of democracy, the power of the military, censorship, or the issue of justice for those killed by the military and the political prisoners in jail at the moment.

In such circumstances, it is only the power of the Red Shirt social movement that can push the government into making serious steps towards democratic reforms. The prime minister will be under great pressure to allow Red Shirt community radio stations, shut down by the previous government, to function. But she will not want to do much about the lèse majesté law and the computer crimes law.

We should not forget that Mubarak was only put on trial in Egypt because of pressure on the military council by the democracy movement. The Red Shirts now face an important test of their ability to act independently of the Phuea Thai Party government.

As for the international academic community that makes a living from studying Thailand, I pose these questions:

How many of you are going to remain silent about the destruction of academic freedom in Thailand so that you can continue to travel to Thailand? When will the majority of foreign academics follow the lead of those principled academics outside Thailand who have already made a stand against lèse majesté? Is it time to boycott universities like Kasetsart and Chulalongkorn until they change their ways? Will any of these issues ever be discussed at international conferences on Thailand?

* Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a former associate professor in the department of political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. He is author of Thailand's Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, for which he was charged with lèse majesté, and A Coup for the Rich.

* See also this week's feature by Suluck Lamubol.