International outcry over eroded academic freedom
“We have watched with growing concern as the space for freedom of expression has shrunk precipitously” since the May 2014 coup, the letter with almost 240 signatures said.
The letter was prompted by the “summary firing” of prominent historian, Somsak Jeamteerasakul by Thammasat University last month.
By choosing to join with the junta to attack Somsak, “the Thammasat University administration has abdicated its responsibility to protect academic freedom and nurture critical thinking”, the scholars from around the world said.
Somsak, a vocal critic of the military junta was charged under the country’s draconian lèse majesté law in 2011 which can lead to up to 15 years in prison for defaming members of the royal family.
He fled into exile after the military regime took over in May 2014. Shortly after the coup, along with many other academics and intellectuals, he was summoned to report to the junta, and when he did not, the National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO, issued a warrant for his arrest and appearance in military court, as examination of violations of the junta’s orders was placed within the jurisdiction of the military court following the coup.
The order dismissing Somsak was issued on 24 February by Thammasat University rector Somkid Lertpaitoon. The grounds cited for the dismissal was that he had ignored orders to show up to work for 15 consecutive days.
Thammasat University students and faculty members gathered on both the university’s campuses, to oppose the rector’s decision. They called on the university to protect scholars from political interference, and called for university administrators to resign if they fail to do so.
“The military and the coup supporters are now seeing this as an opportunity to get rid of opponents and dissidents,” Somsak told University World News, adding they would not want to waste such an opportunity.
“I’m very surprised that the dismissal actually happened as the university could have been flexible and chosen more lenient options if they wanted to,” Somsak said.
“Either the university was forced by the NCPO to do this, or the university chose to do this by themselves,” he said.
Somsak had submitted his resignation in December but it was not accepted by the university administrators. They instead established a disciplinary action committee and concluded that Somsak would be dismissed.
The dismissal also caused him to lose around THB800,000 (about US$24,400) in university pension built up over 21 years. Had the university accepted his resignation, he would have been able to retain the pension, he said
Somsak, who is in an undisclosed location in the process of seeking political asylum in a foreign country, commented that the financial loss has severely affected his life in exile.
Thammasat University Rector Somkid Lertpaitoon insisted Somsak’s dismissal was not politically motivated but related to the fact that the historian had not reported for duty. He said the lèse majesté charge against Somsak was made before the NCPO came to power. Therefore the dismissal has nothing to do with academic freedom.
Somkid himself is a member of the junta-picked, military-dominated National Legislative Committee established shortly after the military coup. Nine rectors of other leading universities in Thailand also joined the law-making body.
The open letter called on Thammasat University and other academic institutions to defend academic freedom and freedom of expression.
“At the very least, Dr Somsak Jeamteerasakul should be permitted to appeal against the decision by Thammasat University to summarily dismiss him. In addition, he should be permitted to fight any legal charges against him in the civilian criminal court, not the military court,” they said.
They added: “To think differently is not a crime. If one cannot do so within the walls of the university, spaces of learning and the pursuit of truth, then the space to do so outside those walls will dwindle as well,” said the statement.
“While academic freedom is not worthy of protection greater than that of the right to freedom of expression of all citizens, the impact of its destruction during a time of dictatorship is particularly severe as it prevents students and scholars – those whose daily job is to think about knowledge and its implications – from imagining and working to return to a democratic regime founded on the protection of rights and liberties.”
In February 2014, there was an attempt on Somsak’s life when armed gunmen shot at his house and car with automatic weapons. Concerned about his life and liberty following the May 2014 coup, Somsak fled the country.
Colonel Winthai Suvaree, a spokesperson for the junta, said on Wednesday that the military never harassed Somsak, but merely visited his home because he failed to report to the junta.