Pressure on Thai students, scholars extends overseas
In advance of a seminar held in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies – SOAS – last Tuesday, the Thai embassy in London put pressure on the institution's Thai Society to cancel the event, stating that "the timing of the activity at the present juncture is inappropriate".
According to Lee Jones, senior lecturer in Asian and international relations at Queen Mary, University of London – one of the co-organisers of the SOAS event – Thailand’s embassy in London emailed and phoned students involved in the student-run Thai Society at SOAS in an attempt to get the event cancelled.
“Basically, the order came from Bangkok [to the embassy in London] to shut everything down,” Jones told University World News, describing the diplomatic mission’s actions as “deplorable”.
Neither the organisers nor the students had agreed to the embassy demand. The event went ahead last Tuesday with interest so high that the venue was changed to a larger one.
“For the students to stand up to it [the embassy] and say they were going to go ahead with it is very courageous. They could well face consequences,” Jones said.
Many Thai students in the United Kingdom are on Thai government scholarships. Jones noted that SOAS’s Thai Society also depends on cooperation with the embassy on various events.
“It is not inconsequential for a Thai student to go against the advice of the embassy. It could have all kinds of repercussions for them. For the student is not negligible. It is quite unsettling and unpleasant,” Jones said.
Kirati Jitngamsujarit, president of the Thai Society at SOAS, said an embassy official informed her via email that he wanted to have it on record that the embassy had warned the students not to go ahead with the event – even though embassy officials themselves helped the student society in April to get in touch one of the speakers, lawyer Verapat Pariyawong, who has since been summoned by the military regime.
"They said it was not a good time to have the event. I was really shocked and very scared," Kirati told University World News. "The UK has laws of free speech but as a Thai citizen I have to return to my country and I don't know what the consequences could be."
An added complication, said Queen Mary's Lee Jones, "is that just after we refused to cancel the event the Thai ambassador himself was recalled to Bangkok, summoned by the military regime. He is seen as particularly close to the ousted government.”
Thailand’s ambassador to London Pasan Teparak, who had in the past acted as a special advisor to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was the first overseas envoy to be recalled to Bangkok by the military regime. Thaksin backers have been particularly targeted by the military.
Lee believes the pressure was applied because Harvard-trained lawyer and outspoken academic Verapat Pariyawong was on the SOAS guest list. “They are trying to contain him,” Lee said. “His house was attacked and he is also on the summons list.”
Verapat, a former special counsel to Thailand’s deputy prime minister, who has been on a lecture tour in England that included the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, has been in the military’s sights.
In a video released from London last week, Verapat said he was “not ready” to return to Thailand until the attackers were arrested, to ensure his safety and that of his family.
Sources said Verapat met with the military attaché at the Thai embassy in London before the seminar.
Verapat has made it clear that while critical of the coup, he wants to act as a “two way conduit” of information on what is happening in his home country.
Cambridge’s Southeast Asian Society also featured Verapat in a 29 May seminar entitled “Thailand and the Rule of no Law”.
Thai students attempted to distance themselves from the event, particularly emphasising that the Thai student society had not deliberately timed the event to allow Verapat to leave Thailand, or organised the seminar at his instigation.
Apologising for the “unfortunate timing” of the event, the Thai students said in a statement which clearly revealed their nervousness, that “in no way” did Verapat invite himself or force the group to host the event. The seminar “should be considered for educational purposes only”.
The society was “an open forum that respects the freedom of speech of our speakers and is for students who are keen and interested in Southeast Asia development”, it said.
In Thailand, despite some anti-coup protests, the military regime has come down hard, suspending freedom of speech and assembly and detaining politicians, journalists and academics. They have been released only after promising to refrain from “political agitation”.
Colonel Winthai Suwari, a spokesman for the National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO – Thailand’s ruling Junta – was quoted in the Bangkok Post as saying Verapat had contacted the council saying he had work engagements abroad.
Winthai said Verapat had been advised to submit a written explanation to show he had no intention of defying the NCPO order to appear before the military.
The NCPO had said it would not assign Thai embassies abroad to track down Thai citizens who had fled overseas. Instead, Winthai said the NCPO would “find clues” to their whereabouts from their “close associates”.
Those who had been summoned but had not yet reported to the NCPO would have their financial accounts frozen and “orders given to track them down”, Winthai said.
Last Wednesday the junta also summoned a number of academics in exile facing lèse majesté charges, including Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a former political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University residing in Britain, and Joe Gordon, a naturalised American citizen who was in 2011 given 2.5-year sentence for posting a translation of “The King Never Smiles” on his blog.
They have been ordered to appear in Bangkok by 9 June.
"A lot of those on the latest list are abroad in exile and already have lese majeste charges against them so they cannot go back to Thailandd, they would be arrested anyway," Ungpakorn told University World News.
In Thailand those who do not comply with a summons are arrested and have to face a military court. But he said there was little the military could do about those who were abroad except to freeze their bank accounts in Thailand, which in Ungpakorn's case included his pension from Chulalongkorn University.
"They are trying to create a climate of fear," he said. "The summonses come out every day and people are wondering if they will be next. I intend to carry on blogging and writing and supporting those who stand against the military coup," Ungpakorn said.
* An earlier version of this article was amended to include comments from Kirati Jitngamsujarit and Giles Ji Ungpakorn.