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Thai academics rebel against junta’s limits on freedom

Petition by 60 scholars says junta orders to cancel recent forums ‘a clear infringement on academic freedom’.

22.09.2014
Thai academics rebel against junta’s limits on freedom

BANGKOK

Sixty Thai scholars have written a petition asking the junta and military-controlled government to stop limiting their academic freedom, after security forces stood against two politics-related forums in the last few days.

The petition signed by university teachers from across the country was given to a Bangkok police station Sunday.

Prat Panchakhunathon, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University who delivered the petition told reporters, "We are aware that the National Council for Peace and Order [NCPO, the junta'a official name] attempts to prevent circumstances that will lead Thailand back to political conflict and further widen the divisions between pro- and anti-Thaksin groups."

“But the authorities' actions against the participants in the forum were highly unacceptable," he stressed.

Thaksin Shinawatra, prime minister from 2001 until his overthrow in a 2006 coup, is a deeply divisive figure in Thai politics. He has been living in exile since his conviction in 2008 for abuse of power, but is still widely popular in the north and northeastern parts of the country.

His younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, also served as premier from 2011 until a May 22 coup this year, which overthrew her after seven months of massive anti-government demonstrations triggered by an amnesty bill that would have allowed the lifting of Thaksin’s conviction and his return to Thailand.

On September 18, the junta wrote to the organizers of a forum about “The fall of dictatorships in foreign countries,” ordering the event’s cancelation.

Despite this, the forum attracted more than a hundred students when it was held at Thammasat University the same day, with prominent historian Niddhi Eoseewong among the speakers.

However, 30 minutes into the debate, a police squad intervened and ordered the speakers to stop the forum - but they continued. Finally, the four speakers - all academics - and three of the organizers were arrested by police and released after a few hours.

Another forum on “Happiness and reconciliation under the 2014 interim charter,” planned for next Thursday at Chiang Mai university and co-organized with the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation, has been cancelled on junta’s order.

The recent petition by scholars said, “The actions of police and soldiers are a clear infringement on academic freedom and cannot be accepted.”

“The organization of forums on politics within the country or on international politics is a usual part of academic life. Saying that such forums threaten national security is invalid,” it stressed.

Scholar Panchakhunathon told reporters, “If the basic rights of university teachers and students to this intellectual exchange within a university are not respected, how can we pin our hopes [on] Thailand after its reform [being] a country where people’s rights are respected?”

Kanokrat Sathitniramai, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, explained that scholars are required to submit discussion topics for the junta’s approval prior to a forum.

“With such control, how can we call our work really academic?” she asked.

Several Thai academics have left the Kingdom, or refused to return from abroad, since the May 22 coup due to the lack of intellectual freedom - among them historian Pavin Chachavalpongpun and legal expert Verapat Pariyawong.

Colonel Winthai Suwaree, a junta spokeperson, pleaded Sunday for the public to understand the necessity of maintaining “a distance in the current atmosphere from political activities.”

“If certain agencies want to reflect their problems or make suggestions, they can directly hand in letters to the prime minister and NCPO chief,” he added.

In its vision for the country, the junta has expressed its aspiration for an undivided, unified and harmonious society where political conflicts would be erased and happiness would reign.

Junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has composed a song with this theme that is unceasingly broadcast on the radio.

Since the military seized power, the NCPO has abrogated the constitution and the senate, and banned all opposition and criticism of the junta's orders.

Hundreds of politicians, activists, academics and journalists have been summoned and detained in military camps; most of them released after the seven-day detention period allowed by martial law.

On September 11, Amnesty International released a scathing report on the post-coup human rights situation in Thailand, emphasizing what it called “hundreds of arbitrary detentions, reports of torture and ill-treatment” and “sweeping restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”

The Thai junta acknowledged the report, saying it was partly “one-sided.”

The report denounced the arrests and detentions of scores of people in order to “adjust their attitude” - the junta’s euphemism for the stifling of any opposition to the coup.

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