What role should universities play in student protests?

Thai public universities have recently been the site of widespread student protests against the influence of the military on political decision-making, the power of the Thai monarchy and the repression of free speech. Many of the movement’s leaders are students at elite Thai public universities.

The situation has raised a number of questions, in particular: Are universities responsible for protecting the rights of their students or enforcing the requests of the government?

On 10 August, 21-year-old Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul made the unprecedented decision to address a crowd of over 10,000 people, including many of her fellow students at Thammasat University, an elite public university in Bangkok. She read out a 10-point manifesto calling for reform of the Thai monarchy.

She and other protesters argued that government repression is rooted in the educational system as a result of its rigid discipline and its nationalist curriculum.

Reflecting their opposition to the role of education in stifling freedom of expression, one faction of protesters called for the resignation of then education minister Nataphol Teepsuwan.

The first protests began in February 2020 organised by a coalition of students from six of Bangkok’s public universities. Although the protests are notable for their horizontal participation and have many leaders, university students are the primary driving force behind the protests through organisations such as Free Youth and the Student Union of Thailand.

The largest protests occurred in October 2020, with tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters led by student leaders gathering in Bangkok and in 20 other provinces around the country. Although the protests reached their height in October and November 2020, they are ongoing.

The most recent demonstrations have included protests to demand the release of 19 jailed activists and pro-democracy rallies outside the prime minister’s home as recently as February 2021.

Thailand is one of very few countries with a lèse-majesté law, which means that anyone who criticises the monarchy can face up to 15 years in prison.

Students have had a well-documented history of criticising military rule in Thailand, but due to both the lèse-majesté law and a general culture of deference towards the monarchy, they have traditionally left the monarchy untouched by their activism. The recent protests have broken this tradition by calling for the reform of the monarchy. Many student leaders are facing the consequences.

In September 2020, Thai authorities issued an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people and calling for the arrest of anti-government protesters. The police also used water cannons against protesters in October 2020. As of March 2021, Sithijirawattanakul and her fellow movement leaders are being detained on charges of sedition and violation of the lèse-majesté law.

The question of whether Thai universities bear greater responsibility to their students or to the government is pertinent to understanding their response to the ongoing protests. Some scholars argue that all universities serve some public purpose, but ultimately benefit individuals, while others assert that higher education is critically important to the function of a nation when it comes to education and knowledge production.

However, in the case of the Thai anti-government protests, students and other protesters argue that the government does not have the public’s best interest in mind. This calls into question the definition of ‘the public’ and whose interests the university should serve – the government, whose purpose is to serve the public, or the demands of citizens?

It also illuminates the complexity of who and what constitutes a university and which bodies of the institution determine how it fulfils its public responsibility.

University responses to the protests

Thai universities have respected government requests on several occasions in response to the student protests.

For example, in September 2020 ahead of major protests, provincial governors sent letters to university leaders requesting their presence at meetings to discuss how to prevent students from gathering and many administrators complied.

Later that month, the rector of Thammasat University, where many of the student demonstrations have taken place, released an announcement allowing protests on campus with the condition that the students should sign a written agreement with the university and the police. The students did not comply and held a protest without any written agreement.

In February 2021, the Asian Institute of Technology emailed international students saying that participation in protests could threaten their visas.

These actions demonstrate a pattern of universities supporting the government’s interests over student demands, although we can only speculate about the universities’ motivations. These decisions may illustrate university administrators’ interpretation of higher education as a public good and the idea that they are responsible to the government for their students.

While Thai university administrators have generally cooperated with government officials, some faculty members have expressed support for the student protesters.

In August 2020, a group of faculty members from universities all over Thailand signed a letter in support of the student protesters.

Another group of over 1,000 faculty from the Thai Academic Network for Civil Rights supported the students by affirming the idea that universities should be a place where people can safely ask questions.

A group of professors, including a professor from Thammasat University, marched from the university to the Thai Government House to submit a collective statement.

These faculty members’ actions seem to demonstrate the sense that their commitment to the rights of students and to the university as an entity that allows citizens to openly critique society comes ahead of the governments’ interests.

Marisa Lally is a doctoral student in higher education at Boston College, USA. E-mail: Twitter: @marisalally.