Junta steps up harassment of international academics

Despite the Thai junta’s recent lifting of a ban on political gatherings to pave the way for national elections to be held on 24 March, curbs on academic freedom remain in the country, while evidence has emerged of increased harassment of international academics with an interest in Thailand.

A tweet by a Princeton University scholar who was briefly detained by Thai immigration authorities while leaving Thailand on 9 February has shed light on the continued harassment by Thai authorities of foreign academics who criticise Thailand’s military regime.

According to the tweet from Andrew Johnson, assistant professor of anthropology at Princeton University, United States, he was detained by the Thai immigration police who informed him that he was one of 30 names on a ‘watchlist’ of academics and researchers on “society, culture and politics” in Thailand.

“They wanted information on where I’d been and who I’d talked to,” he tweeted.

Johnson is one of a number of academics whose travels in and out of Thailand have been marred by detention and inquiries from the Thai immigration police, who were reportedly ordered by the central Special Branch Bureau to monitor the activities of these targeted academics.

Johnson also tweeted that a friend informed him that it was likely linked to his signing of a petition supporting protesters from Chiang Mai University charged in August 2017 with ‘holding an unlawful political gathering’ after they were photographed at the International Conference on Thai Studies (ICTS) held in July 2017 in Chiang Mai.

Four of the five defendants held up a banner that said, “An academic seminar is not a military base”, in protest at surveillance of the event by uniformed and plain-clothed officers.

About 20 officers were reported to be attending the conference without registration and permission, taking photos of participants, inquiring into their personal information and recording the discussions in the conference.

A petition was signed in 2017 by some 300 international and Thai academics who attended the ICTS. They called on the charges against the group, including a professor, two graduate students and a translator, to be dropped.

A fifth defendant, Professor Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, director of the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University, did not participate in the symbolic protest but was accused of being complicit as the chair of the conference.

In December 2018, the case was dismissed when the junta, also known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), lifted the ban on political gatherings in advance of this month’s elections. However, harassment of those on a ‘watchlist’ appears to continue.

Immigration officials’ attention

Johnson told University World News via email that the 9 February incident was the first time he had been detained in this way, although it was also the first time he had been back to Thailand since ICTS.

“However, I’ve heard from other academics that, after the ICTS, they experienced similar things going in and out of [Thai] immigration.”

Despite the charges against the ICTS five being dropped, Johnson believes that “once they [the authorities] had such a list of ‘subversive’ academics, they wanted to keep using it”.

“It was an opportunity to collect more data – why give it up, just because it is unjust?” Johnson said.

While Thailand “is still a pretty good place to do research” compared to some countries in the region, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, he added that the incidents “indicate that Thailand is moving towards a more authoritarian model of control over academic freedom”.

Thailand’s Union for Civil Liberty, in a statement in response to Johnson’s detention, called on Thai authorities to abolish any policies and practices that undermine the people’s freedom of expression, including academic freedom, to ensure that the upcoming election on 24 March is free and fair.

The Union for Civil Liberty stated that since the 2014 coup the NCPO has exercised sweeping powers to undermine academic freedom. And even though the practices of issuing summonses and ‘attitude adjustment’ no longer occurred, state surveillance and the atmosphere of fear remains.

Still being monitored

“The scholars on the list are still being monitored because the ICTS case is perceived to be significant for the authorities,” said cultural anthropologist Anusorn Unno, a member of faculty at Thammasat University, Bangkok, who led the Thai Academic Network for Civil Rights, which campaigns for academics whose rights and freedom have been eroded since the 2014 coup.

Chiang Mai, a province in northern Thailand, is perceived to be the support base of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted by a military coup in 2006, while his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was ousted by the 2014 coup. Both are currently overseas. The junta fears they may be attempting a comeback through proxies in the upcoming election.

“I think the academics on the petition have been receiving special attention recently because they know that international solidarity from the international community is vital in the current situation where freedom is curbed on all fronts,” said Anusorn. “So the authorities would make sure they would create some level of annoyance in these people’s lives.”

Rosenun Chesof, a Thai academic now teaching at the University of Malaya, Malaysia, who signed the ICTS petition and who is also one of the 30 on the ‘watchlist’, says that since August 2018 she has been detained and questioned by the immigration police 10 times.

Detention would typically last about an hour followed by questions on whether she participated in any protests or had done anything “in violation of the law”.

“As far as I know, those academics on the list are mostly foreigners or in international universities. The authorities probably think that these people have more freedom to talk about Thailand’s issues outside; that’s why they want to interfere and make sure that these academics would not be left alone when they travel to Thailand,” Rosenun told University World News.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) has documented at least three cases of foreign academics who have faced similar harassment from Thai authorities, especially when they go through the country’s immigration.

In one case, a professor of sociology, who wished to remain anonymous, told TLHR he was briefly detained 14 times at immigration since September 2018, as he travels to Thailand regularly for his research. Occasionally he would be met by Special Branch Bureau officers inquiring whether he is an activist or wanting to know who he plans to meet while in Thailand.