Academics, students arrested for democracy forum
A letter issued by the military’s 2nd Anti-Aircraft Division, circulated on the internet later the same day, said the forum “could affect the government’s attempts to fix national problems” and might create “rifts in society”.
The forum, entitled “The Fall of Foreign Dictatorships” and held at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus, was staged for half-an-hour before dozens of police and military officers intervened.
Police took the four academic speakers and student organisers to a nearby police station for ‘talks’ – the junta’s euphemism for questioning.
Although released after a few hours, they have been told to report to the military before holding any public events from now on. The military also said such activities should not be open to the public in future for fear that they could turn into a political gathering.
Thailand has been under martial law since May, which prohibits more than five people gathering for political purpose.
The forum consisted of academics such as renowned historian Nidhi Eowsriwong, political scientist Prajak Kongkirati and Janjira Sombatphunsiri from Thammasat University.
“The class unfortunately has to end for today, but not because the lecturers do not wish to teach. As long as we cannot make the university a place for intellectual thought, I don’t think there will be a future for Thailand,” said Prajak after police forced the forum organised by a Thammasat student group to shut down.
The military had already tried to cancel the event, prevailing on the university administrators to make the original room to be used for the forum unavailable. The students then moved the forum to a hall in another part of the building.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military leader who staged the military coup on 22 May and is now Thailand’s prime minister, said on Friday in a broadcast on Matichon TV that the authorities did not use any force or arrest the academics and students, but merely asked them to not speak about democracy or elections right now.
The general said the semi-military government is focusing on governance, reform and reconciliation, and airing such issues would not be beneficial to these processes.
The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights – FIDH – and its member organisation in Thailand, the Union for Civil Liberty, issued a joint statement recently condemning the Thai authorities’ action and calling on the junta to stop harassing academics and students who wished to exercise freedom of expression.
“Yesterday’s arrest of students and academics is yet another ominous reminder of the military junta’s intolerance for any dissenting voices,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji.
“In light of the ongoing arbitrary arrests and severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the junta’s claim that it respects human rights is a poorly-disguised pretence,” Lahidji said in a statement.
Earlier this month the junta ordered local human rights organisations to stop a scheduled press conference in Bangkok on human rights in post-coup Thailand, Lahidji noted.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Right Watch, said in a statement on Friday: "While telling the world that they are not dictators, the Thai military authorities are extending their grip into universities and banning discussions about democracy and human rights.
"Prime Minister Prayuth should immediately end this crackdown on academic freedom and free speech."
Thammasat University last week pre-emptively ordered a ban on the annual 6 October event usually held to commemorate the student crackdown in 1976. University administrators said the order was to prevent rifts and division in society.
Since the military takeover, the junta has summoned hundreds of political dissidents, academics, journalists and activists. According to iLaw, a local organisation documenting rights violations, 280 people have been arrested, 105 of them for peaceful anti-coup protests.
Last month, two activists from a student-run theatre group known as Prakaifire were arrested for performing a play deemed to defame the monarchy.