Campus ban on monarchy and protests angers students

A public university in northern Thailand has barred its students from holding any protest or gathering within the campus that mentions the Thai monarchy in any capacity, in a move seen by many students as an attempt to curb freedom of expression.

The development comes just two months after the Move Forward party that campaigned for monarchy reforms swept to victory at the polls, thanks to the support of many students and young voters.

Move Forward has pledged to reform the monarchy’s political powers and amend Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law which effectively criminalises any action or speech seen as criticism against the Royal Family, with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. The party is proposing to reduce the punishment and put a limit on who can file complaints under the law.

Against this backdrop, Chiang Mai University’s administration said in a statement that its new rules, unveiled on 3 July and which also require students to seek permission before holding any protests, upholds students’ rights to peaceful gathering while safeguarding safety and order on campus.

However, a student activist group based at the university, called SAAP 24:7, said that the restrictions “infringe upon academic freedom and freedom of expression, without any regard for the principles of public space and constitutional rights to assembly”.

The group is also collecting student signatures to petition for the measures to be reversed.

“The university must urgently review and adjust its policies on the management of public spaces,” SAAP 24:7 said at the launch of the petition campaign on 6 July, adding that “members of the Chiang Mai University community must be allowed to participate in the designing of such policies”.

Policing the protests

While the university announcement stated the administration respects “rights, liberty and responsibility to assembly under the boundary of the Constitution and the law”, it went on to list a number of restrictions on campus protests and gatherings.

For instance, students must secure approval from the administration at least six hours before a rally can be held. Only university students and personnel can attend the gatherings – members of the public are excluded – and students organising them will be held liable for any damages that occur.

Protest organisers were also advised to avoid sowing ‘division’ among the university community or causing unspecified damages to ‘international relations’.

However, the most contentious rule was a seemingly blanket ban on any mention of the monarchy “whether directly or indirectly” during a protest. The administration did not provide a reason for the prohibition.

According to a tally published by the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 250 people have been charged with lèse majesté since demonstrators, most of them students, took to the streets in July 2020 to demand comprehensive reform of the monarchy.

Somchai Preechasilpakul, associate professor at the faculty of law at Chiang Mai University said the university administration’s blanket ban on students’ discussion of the monarchy in public gatherings was neither in accordance with free speech principles, nor practical. He noted that university officials often host events extolling members of the royal family.

“Suppose I praise the monarchy. Does that count as ‘mention’ of the monarchy?” Somchai told the Thai-language Prachatai online news agency. “If that’s the case, the university would have to ban itself from organising any activity related to the monarchy.”

Permission required to speak freely

Somchai also warned the university’s regulations risked running afoul of the Thai Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly.

“My question is this: Can a state agency like a university issue rules that fall below the standard set by the Constitution?” Somchai asked.

A number of Chiang Mai University students told a local news outlet they disagreed with the new campus rules, saying they were worried the measures will restrict how they express themselves.

“It's like when we want to protest something, we have to get their permission first,” medical student Punyathorn Taweesak said in an interview with The Lanner, a news outlet. “We have to ask for their permission so that we can express our displeasure, even though it’s something we should be able to do right away without getting their approval.

He added, “It’s the university that should be defending our rights to protest.”

Kulpriya Nonthan, a second-year mass media student, said the authorities were “crafting a box for us, and telling us to go shout inside that box. And whatever we want to shout has to be approved by them first”.