Continued curbs on academic freedom under military rule

One year after Thailand’s military coup in May 2014, some prominent university rectors have secured high positions within the military government. But others fled during the immediate aftermath of the coup and a number of scholars are being prosecuted for their outspoken criticism against the country’s establishment.

Students gathered briefly for three different demonstrations on the one-year anniversary of the coup on 22 May in defiance of a junta order, leading to the arrest of 38 students in Bangkok. Two were seriously injured after the army stepped in to stop the protests.

Seven other students were arrested on the anniversary in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen under laws that prohibit gatherings of more than five people, according to statements by the International Federation for Human Rights and the Union for Civil Liberty.

Most of the students in Bangkok were released without charge, but two received notification of charges by letter two weeks later and at least seven others are expecting to be charged for violating orders from the National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO, the official name of the military junta led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Young people have been calling for the restoration of democracy, and a return to open elections, media freedom and civilian rule.

During the 12 months since the military junta took over, student protests have been curbed and almost 50 academic forums have been prohibited under martial law and the interim legal provisions that give the military absolute power to maintain order, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a group which provides legal aid for those accused by the junta.

Students who protested against military rule shortly after the coup and had not been charged previously have begun to receive summonses, signalling the junta’s greater resolve to crack down on dissent.

In the past month, at least three students from various universities have been charged with violating NCPO orders. They face up to a year in prison and-or a fine of THB20,000 (US$593).

Yingcheep Atchanont, a legal officer from iLaw, a rights group, said the aggressive enforcement has a deterrent effect on future student activism, as this is seen as quite harsh and it discourages later generations to express their opinion against the regime.

Lèse majesté law

The junta is also stepping up action against those charged with ‘defaming the monarchy’ under the country’s draconian lèse majesté law – almost 50 people were charged under this law in recent months, according to iLaw.

The Justice Minister has published the names of 29 people in exile recently blacklisted under this charge. General Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy prime minister and interior minister, said they would coordinate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to have them extradited from abroad.

The list includes Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a prominent historian who fled after the coup and sought asylum abroad. He was arbitrarily dismissed by Thammasat University in March, citing his failure to show up at work after more than 15 days.


The suppression of dissident academics within Thailand continues unabated one year on. On 26 May Worachet Pakeerut, a prominent law scholar at Thammasat University and a member of the so-called Nitirat group of lawyers, or the Enlightened Jurists, was summoned to a military court.

He was accused of not reporting earlier to the court when the junta issued more than 700 summonses to activists, journalists and academics deemed to be dissidents to report themselves to the military shortly after the coup last year. He could face up to four years in prison and-or a THB40,000 (US$1,186) fine.

Pongkwan Sawasdipakdi, a political science lecturer at Thammasat University who is considered a critic of the junta, said she received an invitation letter from the National Reconciliation Centre to participate in a forum discussion, along with other activists and academics. She saw this as a warning shot.

“The military is trying to send the message that it has an eye on us,” she told University World News.

But the university itself also exerts control. Nine university rectors were co-opted by the military junta to the National Legislative Assembly.

“Most warnings came indirectly through the university administration. I have not been directly threatened by the military and hence my job has not been more difficult. However, I received some warnings from the university administration not to criticise the university's limits on academic freedom,” said Pongkwan.

She and a dozen other academics launched a campaign in early May calling for a democratic referendum.


The government recently agreed to pave the way for a referendum on the newly drafted constitution. Critics view the constitution as problematic as it was drafted by the National Legislative Assembly which is dominated by the military and regime loyalists.

Nitirat’s Worachet said the new constitution has a problematic section about academic freedom, which will be allowed as long as it does not conflict with “civil practices and good public morale”.

“This is open to very wide and vague interpretation that could affect academic freedom and freedom of expression in general,” Worachet said in an interview last month with Prachatai, an online newspaper.

The government is planning to schedule a referendum around January 2016, and a general election after August 2016. The academics have called for a free and open environment for discussion and to be presented with reasonable options.