Academics, students flee as military takes over in latest coup

Dozens of academics in Thailand have been summoned, detained and threatened following the 22 May coup d’etat. As martial law was imposed nationwide two days before the country's 12th coup, the junta instructed universities to ‘cooperate’ with the military. Student activists have been summoned and warned against political activities, prompting many academics and students to flee the country or go into hiding.

Following six months of street protests and violence involving grenades and bombings in Bangkok, the military junta led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha decided to take over the country, after military-led attempts to have all political sides negotiate failed.

On the evening of 22 May, military leaders read statements on national TV, saying the junta needed to usurp power to prevent further violence.

The military ousted the government led by Thailand’s 28th Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai Party – sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who was also ousted in a 2006 military coup. Since then, Thaksin-allied parties have won four elections.

The Pheu Thai Party has faced anti-government street protestors – mainly Bangkok’s middle-class, elites and southerners. They aimed to end Yingluck’s caretaker government after disrupted elections on 2 February left the country in political deadlock.

Military summons

Shortly after the take-over, the junta summoned a few hundred politicians, activists, academics and journalists. Those who failed to show up faced two years of imprisonment and a THB40,000 (US$1,333) fine.

Those summoned said they had been warned by the junta not to carry out political activities or voice their opposition to military rule – or face prosecution.

The military abolished the Senate and the 2007 constitution, and issued an order specifying that those who violate the junta’s order or commit offences regarding the monarchy or national security, will be tried in Military Court where they will lack rights to due process.

The junta saw its tough decisions through when former education minister Chaturon Chaisang defied his summons and held a press conference at a foreign press club in Bangkok, where he openly called for immediate return to civilian rule. Soldiers stormed the club and arrested him in front of nearly 100 Thai and international media.

“Coups are not the way out or solution to problems of divisiveness in society. If they come along they create even more divisiveness,” Chaturon told the press before his arrest. “What is worrisome is that, if those in power don’t manage things well, it might create violence and increased loss.”

Chaturon is now detained at Bangkok Remand Prison and will be tried in the Military Court for violating the junta’s order and inciting unrest.

Chilling, including for academics

This creates a chilling atmosphere, including for academics.

Scholars summoned to the military were vocal critics of Thailand’s lese majeste law preventing criticism of the monarchy – one of the harshest such rules and sentences in the world.

They included Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a history lecturer at Thammasat University known for vocal criticism of the monarchy and the lese majeste law. He faced prosecution for the offence and has been attacked by unknown assailants who shot at his house with live bullets.

Other academics summoned were Worachet Pakeerat and Sawatree Suksri, legal scholars from Thammasat University who formed the Enlightened Jurist Group advocating amendment of the lese majeste law to be more in line with human rights principles.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun from Kyoto University, another outspoken academic who has often criticised the establishment, was also summoned. They chose not to report to the military.

“I have no plan to report myself to the coup makers who destroyed the democratic institutions and robbed the people’s rights,” Pavin told University World News. “I reject the legitimacy of the coup and would like to condemn its policy of closing the space for freedom of expression.”

Many fled, universities issued warnings

Many academics, whether summoned or not, have chosen to flee the country as they fear the military will ‘purge’ those who have expressed critical political opinions. Vocal academics in northern Thailand were summoned and some reportedly faced house raids by the military.

Student activists such as ‘Aum Neko’, a transgender Thammasat student charged under lese majeste laws, was also summoned but did not report and is now in hiding.

Panitan Prueksakasemsuk, a student activist and son of a lese majeste prisoner, and his mother were taken to the Army Club after soldiers searched their house and collected two laptops. They were detained for a day and warned not to express any political opinions to the public, or take part in any political activities.

Universities have been ordered by the military to monitor political activities on campuses.

After the Martial Law was imposed, two days before the coup, rectors at various universities – and particularly in northern and north-eastern Thailand, strongholds of government support – issued orders warning lecturers and students not to express political activities or opinions to the media, as ordered by the junta.

But student protests persist sporadically in some provinces, with one last Thursday in which around 100 people joined a demonstration against military rule at Thammasat University in Bangkok. There were no arrests.

A recent worrying development occurred last Friday when a Thammasat graduate student in law called Apichat (last name withheld due to privacy concern) was charged with lese majeste after being detained for seven days for protesting against the coup.

He was arrested on 23 May when he joined an anti-junta protest in central Bangkok, and was then detained at a police station under martial law.

On day seven of detention, the police claimed the military had found evidence on Facebook considered defamatory to the monarchy, so Apichat was charged with computer crime in addition to violating the junta’s order and denied bail. He is now at Bangkok Remand Prison and will most likely to be tried in the Military Court.

International condemnation

The coup has been condemned by the international community including the United Nations, as well as countries including France, Germany and Australia. America and Australia have already cut military cooperation and aid to Thailand, measures seen as strongly opposing military rule.

Thai studies scholars in the international community, especially from Australian National University, published an open letter to General Prayuth Chan-ocha calling for the immediate return of power to civilian government.

"Constitutional rule by a civilian government, including both elections and the full participation of all citizens in rule, is the only path forward for the continued development of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Thailand," said the letter signed by 26 international Thai studies scholars.