Student leaders face action over monarchy critics’ invite

Administrators at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, one of Thailand’s top universities, have pledged to take disciplinary action against a prominent student activist and the university’s student union leaders for organising an orientation for incoming students that featured outspoken critics of the Thai monarchy.

The decision followed pressure from pro-monarchy alumni groups.

The orientation event on 20 July featured three well-known figures as speakers: Thammasat University student leaders Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak and Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul from the pro-democracy movement and Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an academic and critic of the monarchy, now in exile and teaching at Kyoto University, Japan.

All are facing multiple lèse-majesté charges for publicly criticising the Thai royal family, a topic considered the biggest taboo in the country, and which can lead to prison terms of up to 15 years for insulting the monarchy.

After the orientation, the university’s Office of Student Affairs published a statement saying the content of the orientation was considered “radical” and “rude” and was not approved by the university. The university would therefore take disciplinary action against the event organisers.

The university also implied student handbooks published by the student union, which included critiques on certain university traditions and interviews with liberal student activists, were “not appropriate” for new students and their guardians to refer to.

President of the Chulalongkorn University Student Union Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, also a prominent activist, said he received a letter from the deputy dean at Chulalongkorn reprimanding him for inviting the activists as speakers, as well as for producing and distributing the student handbooks.

He added that the deputy dean submitted the case to a university committee for investigation and to decide on the punishment against the student organisers involved.

“Instead of being the last fortress to defend freedom, the university is assisting in the decline of freedom. If Chulalongkorn actually takes disciplinary action against us, not only are they refusing to defend freedom, but they also set a norm for other universities to follow, diminishing liberty in this society and affecting young people’s future,” Chotiphatphaisal told University World News.

The university’s action came amid waves of student and youth-led protests demanding the resignation of Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, reform of the monarchy and distribution of quality vaccines.

Following the dissolution of the progressive political party popular among the youth in February 2020, student groups have been mobilising and have protested regularly, demanding political reform, with some of the prominent leaders being ‘Penguin’ and ‘Rung’.

Pressure from pro-monarchy alumni groups

The university had apparently bowed to pressure from pro-monarchist alumni. On 26 July, Chaiphat Chantarawilai, leader of a conservative pro-monarchy alumni group, ‘Defending the Honour of Chula’, submitted a letter to the university’s dean calling on administrators to take action against the student organisers of the orientation, including a demand to involve the police in a formal investigation.

“I accept that Chotiphatphaisal was elected president of the student union, but I will never accept his view on our university, which we consider to be highly honourable,” said Chantarawilai in an interview with online media Khaosueb.

Chantarawilai said that if no action is taken, he would petition to remove the dean next.

The United States-based Human Rights Foundation on 22 July called on Chulalongkorn University to respect freedom of expression and academic freedom, while PEN International on 20 August issued a statement in support of Chotiphatphaisal and called on Thai authorities to reform the lèse-majesté law.

PEN International said Chulalongkorn University officials’ retaliation against Chotiphatphaisal was an “astonishingly thin-skinned assault on students’ rights to free expression and academic freedom”.

“Students at a world-class university such as Chulalongkorn must be afforded the universal right to free expression, rather than bowing to the political whims of alumni who disagree with that expression. Chotiphatphaisal and his fellow students should be allowed to publish written materials and invite speakers to express their opinions,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of free expression at risk programmes at PEN America.

Support from students

Chotiphatphaisal said that he has the support of thousands of progressive alumni, who petitioned the university calling on it not to intervene in student affairs.

“This is not new; I myself have faced similar actions from the university when I was removed from the presidency of the university student council,” Chotiphatphaisal said, referring to an incident in 2017 when he and seven other students walked out of an initiation ceremony for new students, refusing to prostrate before the statues of Thailand’s King Rama V and King Rama VI.

The students insisted that bowing was sufficient as prostration was officially abolished as a practice, which enraged a professor overseeing the ceremony, resulting in the professor holding one of the students in a headlock.

The incident cost Chotiphatphaisal and other students their positions on the student council, and resulted in the deduction of 25 points in the merit system, prohibiting them from participating in future student affairs activities on campus.

However, together with human rights lawyers, they filed a lawsuit at the Administrative Court in 2018 demanding that the university revoke the order. In 2019, the court ruled against the university, reinstating Chotiphatphaisal as the union president, reducing the points deduction to 10 points, and ordering the university to pay THB10,000 (US$305) compensation to each of the eight students.

The court ruling allowed Chotiphatphaisal and other fellow students to run for the student union leadership the following year, which they won in landslide votes in April 2021.

“Despite the decline in freedom in our society, at least the university campus should be spared because wisdom can only be obtained through free speech. However, in recent years universities do not uphold the values of freedom that can be challenged and expressed freely,” Chotiphatphaisal told University World News.