Historian influential with protesters is investigated

A prominent historian, whose work has influenced youth and student protesters in Thailand demanding reform of the country’s monarchy, is being investigated by the university where he did his PhD after criticism from pro-royalists, in part attempting to limit its impact on young protesters.

Nattapol Chaiching, currently teaching at Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University in Bangkok, is a historian whose 2009 PhD thesis at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University examining how the United States government intervened in Thai politics during the Cold War era, was passed with distinction. It has been widely praised for providing breakthrough insights into Thailand’s politics during an understudied period of the country’s history.

Two subsequent books based on the thesis were published in 2013 and 2020 by academic publishers Same Sky Books and became influential among politically active young people in 2020, according to a survey by Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, a lecturer in political science at Chulalongkorn University.

The protests led by youth and student groups in recent years have resulted in unprecedented widescale public calls for reform of the monarchy, a previously taboo subject in Thailand.

Nattapol’s book The Junta, the Lords, and the Eagle published last year was the best-selling academic book in 2020, propelled by interest in the historical role of the monarchy in politics. But royalists see the book’s popularity and influence as a threat and have targeted the author, calling for his PhD to be revoked.

In response, Chulalongkorn University, who owns the copyright to the PhD thesis, set up an investigation committee in February ostensibly to review its academic integrity. Earlier, in 2019, Chulalongkorn University’s graduate department effectively banned the thesis by barring public access to it, claiming at the time that it contained errors based on some pieces of evidence used.

Depending on its findings, the university’s current investigation could lead to a revocation of Nattapol’s degree, or other disciplinary action under research misconduct rules.

In March 2021, Nattapol, along with his thesis advisor, Kullada Kesboonchu-Mead, and academic publishers Same Sky Books, faced a THB50 million (US$1.6 million) civil lawsuit filed by MR Priyanandana Rangsit, grand-daughter of Prince Rangsit, who was mentioned in the thesis as allegedly causing damage to the reputation of the clan of Prince Rangsit, son of King Chulalongkorn, the fifth monarch of then Siam, now Thailand.

The lawsuit, filed on 5 March in a Bangkok civil court, also requested a temporary injunction to immediately stop the distribution of the books.

International scholars, in a petition released on 5 April said: “Given the politicised place of the monarchy in the Thai polity, the investigation into Dr Nattapol for a mistake in his dissertation is the instigation of a witch-hunt, rather than the safeguarding of principles of academic integrity.”

The scholars called on the president and other members of Chulalongkorn University to “cease the investigation into Dr Nattapol, [and] make his PhD dissertation available to the public, since an open discussion, not censorship, is the best way to guarantee academic integrity in this case”.

Academic integrity or censorship?

Nattapol’s thesis, titled “Thai Politics in Phibun’s Government Under the US World Order (1948-1957)”, explores how the United States intervened in Thailand during this period by supporting the state security apparatus and propping up the monarchy in Thai politics, which resulted in long-lasting impacts on the political system until today.

In 2017, while doing his own research on Thai politics under King Rama IX, who reigned from 1946 to 2016, royalist political philosopher Chaiyan Chaiyaporn at Chulalongkorn University found an error in Nattapol’s first book and his PhD thesis based on pieces of evidence referred to by the author.

Chaiyan then submitted his findings to Chulalongkorn University and demanded action to uphold academic accuracy, including revisions.

Chaiyan pointed to an error in Nattapol’s statement that Prince Rangsit, who was the Regent during 1947-1951, interfered with the government by attending a cabinet meeting – an apparent mistake by the author as the evidence did not support such a conclusion.

After being informed, Nattapol contacted the university’s graduate department asking to revise the thesis. However, university regulations stipulate that as the thesis was approved and published, it could not be amended.

After an investigation at Chulalongkorn in 2018, the thesis examination committee and the faculty of political science concluded that Nattapol’s error was unintentional, and that the passage containing the mistake could be removed without affecting the argument in that chapter or the thesis as a whole. Nattapol’s second book published by Same Sky Books was revised to remove the error.

However, as the popularity of his books continued to rise and their contents received wider publicity, it quickly met with a backlash, according to the Association for Asian Studies, which issued a statement in support of Nattapol on 7 April.

A petition signed by some 400 alumni submitted to the university in February demanded further action, which led to the setting up of the university committee that same month.

Chaiyan also said in an online interview on the conservative online broadcaster Watchdog Channel on 24 December 2020: “As you can see, the books are very influential on students and youth who are out there and protesting, and it is also a good thing that they read up on the knowledge. However, this mistake in the book can cause misunderstanding and bad effects.”

He added: “I am not saying the monarchy has never intervened in politics, nor am I here to defend the monarchy myself. However, this is not about interpretating the [historical] evidence, but about falsifying information. You can make an assumption, but there has to be evidence to back it up for the sake of academic integrity.”

Chaiyan claimed in the interview that he disagreed with using the lèse-majesté law – which has been used against historians in the past – or for Nattapol’s PhD to be revoked, as it would be severely damaging to all parties.

Thai scholars’ petition

On 26 March, 279 Thai scholars signed a petition asking Chulalongkorn University to halt its attack on Nattapol and uphold academic freedom. The petition noted that several interviews with Chaiyan and others, and the legal complaint by the Rangsit family, all use the same wording to say Nattapol “intentionally” made a false statement in his thesis.

“They are using this single mistake to attack and destroy the credibility of Dr Nattapol’s thesis,” said the statement by Thai scholars.

“Worse, it is a mistake that Dr Nattapol has accepted and corrected in his book The Junta, the Lords, and the Eagle but [the correction] could not be made in his thesis. More importantly, errors in references and interpretations do not directly alter the theme or main proposal of Dr Nattapol’s thesis,” the Thai academics said.

They added: “Linking academic matters with [the accusation of] overthrowing the monarchy and accusing Nattapol of deliberately distorting the evidence is the result of personal prejudice and differences in the political ideology of the examiners, despite the fact that Nattapol’s thesis and book do not lead to [advocating for] or even suggest the abolition of the monarchy in any way. Such attacks are therefore extremely unfair to Nattapol.”

Ek Patarathanakul, assistant to the president for corporate communications at Chulalongkorn University, said in an interview with BBC Thai on 26 March that Chulalongkorn University would uphold the “academic perspective” in examining the issue.

“Even without this letter [from Thai academics], we have to use universal principles [of academic integrity] in reviewing this case… But whether it affects the accuracy and validity and other factors that may lead to the [degree] revocation, it is another matter. The committee is expert enough to answer whether or not it would lead to revocation. All the doubts will be gone by then,” Ek said.

International scholars back Nattapol

Following the announcement of Chulalongkorn’s investigation committee, hundreds of scholars from universities across North America, Europe and Asia issued an appeal calling for Chulalongkorn University to defend academic freedom and stop attacks against Nattapol.

The scholars, in a 5 April statement also called on the university to put in place policies to provide protection to students and faculty to take the intellectual risks necessary to complete creative and ground-breaking work.

“The cost of producing only a narrow scholarship amenable to those in power is a decline in excellence, which may ultimately be reflected in the international rankings so essential to the survival of all universities today, including Chulalongkorn University,” it said.

Katherine Bowie, professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, a former Association for Asian Studies president (2017-18), stated in the 5 April statement: “By failing to make a straightforward defence of academic freedom, Chulalongkorn University risks the danger of appearing to allow itself to become a party to the broader partisan politics that is threatening to beset Thailand at present.”

The Association for Asian Studies (AAS), in a separate statement on 7 April, joined the call for Chulalongkorn University to halt its investigation and unblock Nattapol’s dissertation, as well as urging the Bangkok Civil Court to dismiss its lawsuit. It said it was “deeply concerned” about the action against Nattapol.

“Defamation lawsuits and the selective interpretation and enforcement of lèse-majesté laws have been used to stifle scholarship, limit academic discussion and silence individual scholars,” the AAS statement said.

“Chulalongkorn University’s decision to block Nattapol Chaiching’s dissertation – and the ongoing lawsuit against him and his publisher over his book – are the most recent examples of this distressing trend.”

The AAS is an association of over 6,000 international scholars of Asian studies which is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States.

With a court case ongoing, Nattapol declined to be interviewed for this article due to legal implications.

This story was updated on 15 April 2021.