The heavy-handed treatment of authorities against a well-respected scholar and a group of participants of a conference in Chiang Mai will be a setback for the military regime, and the country.
On Aug 21, Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, organiser of the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies (ICTS), along with four other participants, were officially charged with violating Order No.3/2015 of the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order. These charges demonstrate that the regime's ambitions to stifle dissent go beyond politicians, human rights activists, student groups, media outlets, journalists, and academics to extend to total control of academic events.
Nonetheless, this seriously harms legitimate academic inquiry and reduces the likelihood of further international conferences being held in Thailand.
The charges state that the accused carried signs bearing the slogan, "This is an academic forum, not a military camp", and raised their hands in a three-finger salute, inspired by the Hunger Games movies, for photos. This is allegedly a violation of Section 12 of Order 3/2015, which forbids political gatherings of five or more persons. In their defence, the five accused stated their signs were in protest at the overt and covert military surveillance at the event.
The ICTS, held every three years, articulates the various voices of Thai studies globally. This year's theme was "Globalised Thailand? Connectivity, Conflict and Conundrums of Thai Studies". The theme was designed to encourage academic participants from dozens of countries to assist in reducing the intellectual isolationism of Thailand.
The conference's sub-theme on connectivity explored transformations that occur in different geo-cultural spaces popularly thought of as nationally "Thai", but which involve forms of power that originated with various indigenous ethnic, cultural, or national groups, or even global communities.
Most essentially, the "connected Thailand" paradigm which the conference sought to promote critically challenges the traditional concept that Thailand exists as a separate, "unique" entity, aloof from intellectual engagement with the rest of the world.
In the spirit of intellectual inquiry, papers at the conference focused on conflicts both within Thailand and between Thailand and its neighbours throughout history, and they sought to unravel Thailand's socio-political conundrums through interdisciplinary studies connecting past and present.
For instance, a keynote plenary given by Professor Katherine Bowie of the University of Wisconsin Madison examined the role of the monk Khruba Srivichai in resisting Thai nationalism and militarism and conscription in the North in the 1920s and 1930s.
Other papers highlighted ethnic issues, largely missing from domestic Thai socio-political discourse but researched both domestically, in fact increasingly so, and internationally. For example, one paper outlined structural inequalities in Thailand by ethnicity, noting that most of the country's ethnic minorities are ignored in national policy making and suffer from poor underlying socio-economic status, health, or education. One session focused on the plight of education in the deep South and the demonisation of schoolteachers at private Islamic schools, often seen as purveyors of militancy by suspicious state security organs. Another session looked at the human rights of mountain peoples and sea peoples, and another at Thai-Myanmar border issues.
The surveillance of the conference is tantamount to shutting down scientific investigation into the causes of social conflicts. Many of the conference's sessions could have been deemed political gatherings. Those five who protested the surveillance are sacrificing themselves to defend legitimate scientific inquiry.
Following the peaceful example of Khruba Srivichai, the five accused have acted honourably, reporting peacefully to Chang Phuak police station following the police summons. The accused have denied the charges, meaning they may now face a military trial. The accused will return to the police station to submit written statements on Sept 1.
According to the charges, announced by police investigators on Aug 18 on behalf of the military, the five accused installed signs reading "This is an academic forum, not a military camp" on the wall of a seminar room of the Chiang Mai International Exhibition and Convention Centre during the Thai studies conference. The accused then took photos with the signs to both highlight and protest the surveillance.
In the opinion of the police, the protest was a symbolic act of political resistance. Their logic is that, as the signs were easily noticed by attendees and could be disseminated online to anti-government groups to provoke and incite political unrest, the result could have been a larger tide of negative, anti-government resistance.
In fact, the charges and surrender of the five have attracted the attention of large numbers of supporters of academic freedom, including petitions and letters signed by hundreds of academics globally, organised by scholastic movements such as Scholars at Risk. This focus on the plight of the five accused has therefore become another instance of the Streisand effect, where militarised Thailand's attempts to censor or punish activity itself becomes newsworthy.
This crackdown on free speech at international conferences is an assault on academic freedom of expression by an increasingly pervasive regime which has already harassed nearly 100 academics through visits to their homes and families or attitude adjustment sessions. The regime has also shut down more than 80 academic talks since 2015. Thai academic events may now, in effect, be perceived as potential enemies by the militarised state. Still, both Thai and international academics are resisting the onset of military totalitarianism, and a group of academics have established the Network for Academic Freedom and Social Justice as a coordinating centre for this case.
The regime appears willing to tarnish its international prestige and even credibility in order to repress fundamental freedoms domestically. This is despite potential economic effects on Bangkok, centre of a meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions industry worth over 200 billion baht annually. Crucially, the actions of the militarised state will inevitably cement in the minds of potential foreign partners, whether academic researchers or business investors, the fact that Thailand no longer guarantees basic civil liberties or political rights.
John Draper, director, Social Survey Centre Consultant, Khon Kaen Smart City Initiative (culture), College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University; Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is founder of Khon Kaen University's College of Local Administration.