The army camp creeps on to the uni campus
The military has been using overt and covert means to influence academics, who fear their freedoms are being restricted.
Titipol Phakdeewanich does not discuss politics on Facebook. He was never “invited” by the military to undergo "attitude adjustment" sessions. His colleagues who teach at Ubon Ratchathani University describe him as not politically vocal, and his criticisms as not provocative or hostile, but within the boundaries determined by normal Thai politeness.
But even after his first unofficial meeting with military officers in December last year, the army’s continued presence in classrooms, seminars and events involving international organisations has left the political science lecturer feeling fear and concern.
“It’s because I teach political science, democracy and human rights. They see it as a threat towards national security,” Mr Titipol said. “They wanted me to be careful when discussing these issues, despite being the same activities I participated in before the coup took place.”
In the northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, a key red shirt stronghold, Mr Titipol has been monitored at eight different events that he knows of, each involving an international organisation. And yet, 18 months after the military coup, he is not the only academic under army surveillance, who describe the threats, monitoring and psychological warfare as not only a violation of their privacy but also a threat to academic freedom.
For Mr Titipol, the army was concerned not only about his influence on the students, but possibly more so about his interactions with embassies and international organisations.
While the army has banned political gatherings of more than five people, it has often included seminars and academic discussions under that rule. Many event organisers are required to submit requests to authorities prior to staging a discussion. Most of the requests related to democracy, politics and lese majeste, however, have been rejected, often without any explanation.
On a rare occasion in December last year when Ubon Ratchathani University was given the green light to host an open forum on democracy and human rights, together with representatives from the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), several military officers were present.
Before last year’s coup, Mr Titipol never thought he would be a target of the military because of his job teaching about democracy and human rights. For many years he has organised and taken part in events on those subjects as part of his job as a political science lecturer.
“My work does not involve opposition against the NCPO or the government,” Mr Titipol told army officers when he was invited, along with other faculty members and students, for a discussion in December at the 22nd Army Circle in Warin Chamrap district. “I introduced myself and one of the officers said, ‘Oh, so you’re Ajarn Boy’ [Mr Titipol’s nickname], which made me a bit shocked because it seemed like I was under his surveillance.”
Since then, army surveillance has continued in classrooms and seminars, including those attended by officials from the US Embassy, which regularly sends its staff to provide special lectures for the university’s American Studies Programme on topics ranging from corruption and scholarships to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.
In August, several military officers attended a group discussion on LGBT rights, where representatives from non-governmental organisations and the US Embassy were present.
“The first question they [the officers] asked me was, ‘Ajarn, what exactly are they trying to lead you into believing today?’ ” recalled Mr Titipol, who is also deputy dean of administration at the political science faculty. “They saw everything in the context of the Vietnam War, but instead of communist propaganda, I think they now see democracy as propaganda and a threat to national security.”
The following evening, military officers arrived at the campus to take pictures of students at the political science faculty.
IN LINE WITH POLICY
Thammasat University’s Worachet Pakeerut.
Military officers still survey the campus on an almost daily basis, taking pictures. During an official visit by UNDP undersecretary-general Gina Casar in October, they listened in on Mr Titipol’s conversations with UN officials.
But topics such as LGBT rights and anti-corruption are hardly a threat to national security and are, in fact, part of the university’s initiatives that complement NCPO policies.
International cooperation and good governance are among the issues taken up by the political science faculty as part of a government request, according to an official letter seen by Spectrum. Gen Prayut has made tackling corruption a national priority since the early days after the coup.
“I see it [the surveillance] as a violation of academic freedom,” Mr Titipol said. “They consider my activities as a threat to national security, but this line of thinking is problematic as they broadly identify the term as anything that affects the stability of the NCPO or government.”
The NCPO did not respond to Spectrum’s requests for comment.
The US Embassy says it remains concerned by continued limitations on human rights and fundamental freedoms in Thailand, including undue restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
“We believe freedom of expression and assembly as well as academic freedom are essential to an open and robust public debate on Thailand’s future,” said US embassy spokesperson Melissa Sweeney. “That debate is critical to building the sustainable democratic institutions essential to ensuring a stable, secure and prosperous future for the Thai nation and people.”
Meanwhile, the climate of fear has extended into classrooms, where critical thinking is toned down and lecturers tell Spectrum they are reluctant to discuss “sensitive” issues, for fear of army surveillance. As well as overt means, there is also a fear that someone in a class may be spying or even reporting the content via family connections.
“We are concerned for our personal safety. Right now there is no guarantee that my life will be safe,” Mr Titipol said.
“One of the important things for Thailand to note, then, is that if a participatory role for the population is not somehow re-established, then the social tensions and threats to cohesion are only likely to persist, or even sadly worsen — and this worsening predicament is something that I am very concerned to help Thailand to avoid."
After a series of unofficial and informal invitations to meet senior military officials, Mr Titipol was officially invited by the NCPO to another meeting in July to understand their working process.
Ubon Ratchathani University was one of four universities in the province which received such invitations — they were sent with the expectation their academics, acting as university representatives, would be in attendance.
The focus of the meeting was to seek assurances that the various universities will closely monitor the activities of their students, and it was made expressly clear that this was a consequence of the activities of the Dao Din movement.
Army concerns over student opposition in Thailand’s northeast, considered a red shirt stronghold, were heightened after seven student members of the Dao Din group of anti-coup protesters from Khon Kaen University failed to report to the police in June.
The students were among 14 arrested on May 22, the first anniversary of the military coup, during a protest at the democracy monument in Khon Kaen province.
When Gen Prayut paid a visit to Ubon Ratchathani earlier this month, Mr Titipol received a phone call from national security officers asking whether students were planning to organise any activities.
“The army is afraid that our political science students would conduct similar activities [to the Dao Din group],” he said. The military was also concerned about any financial support that student activities may get — especially from foreign donors such as the UN and/or other international organisations.
“We have been informed that we must act to ensure that any and all of the financial support that the students receive is first approved by their respective universities, and that the military are then fully informed. We were told this approach is necessary because such activities relate to national security.”
The military also expressed concern about the communications of those students who are either sympathetic towards or actively support the Dao Din group — including through social media such as Facebook and Line. The military argued such activities may interfere with the NCPO's reform process, and that universities must track such information as part of their cooperation with the NCPO.
A BAD INFLUENCE
Anti-government banners and posters printed with the phrase “Down with dictatorship. Democracy must prevail” were seen scattered around universities throughout the country after the coup. The phrase — which is still commonly used today as a Twitter hashtag — gained popularity after authorities seized a similar banner from Thammasat University students before the annual football match with Chulalongkorn University in February.
Thammasat law lecturer Sawatree Suksri.
In the same month, it made its way to bulletin boards, tables, bus doors, windows and even the walls of Chulalongkorn — the oldest and one of the most prestigious universities in the country.
When Vinai Poncharoen shared a picture of a banner in Ubon Ratchathani province, military officers mistook it as the same one printed on a white banner hanging in front of Mahasarakham University last year. As an associate professor at Mahasarakham University’s College of Politics and Governance, Mr Vinai was wrongly assumed to be the culprit.
“They thought I was influencing the students,” said Mr Vinai, who has met with military officers and police in Maha Sarakham province eight times since the coup.
His participation in several democracy-related activities, such as a campaign to promote elections, was thought to have caught the eye of officers even before the coup. So it did not come as a surprise when he was told he was on a list of people who had to report to the military in the days after the coup, along with four other faculty members. They were asked not to oppose the coup and were threatened with being tried in a military court if they were arrested.
Last month, an army colonel and his subordinates held a meeting at the university with Mr Vinai, the faculty dean and vice-dean.
“I told them I would not stop posting about politics on Facebook,” Mr Vinai said. “The colonel threatened me that this would be his last request, but refused to tell me what would happen if I violated his rule.”
Mr Vinai was among the first of 118 people to sign a petition to amend the lese majeste law in 2011, with many of his Facebook posts showing his stance to amend or abolish Article 112 of the Criminal Code.
But in classrooms, when teaching Thai politics, he is careful when discussing the monarchy and instead uses obscure references. A staff member from the student affairs division had attended one of his lectures and the university’s legal adviser also attempted to add him as a Facebook friend.
“They [the army] said they have a spy in the university watching over me,” he said.
‘NOT A MILITARY CAMP’
Following a cabinet meeting on Oct 27, Gen Prayut denounced university lecturers as having instigated rebellious thoughts and actions among students.
Four days later, a network of university professors delivered a statement titled “universities are not military camps” at a press conference in Chiang Mai, calling for the support of freedom of expression and critical thinking in educational institutions.
“We jointly declare that in order to bring Thailand out of the conflict … there is a need for the creation of a society that has tolerance towards differences of opinion, transparency in solving conflicts and a fair and accountable judicial system,” the statement read. “Such a society is one that is governed under a liberal democracy … and educational institutions have a direct role in creating a democratic society.”
Following the event, Chiang Mai police issued summonses for Chiang Mai University history professor Attachak Sattayanurak and law associate professor Somchai Preechasilapakul to report on Tuesday and hear charges of violating an NCPO order which bans political gatherings of more than five people.
Chaiyan Rajchaigool, the dean of Ubon Ratchathani University’s political science faculty, call the military’s constant campus patrols “barbaric”. He said they intimidated students and faculty members, likening it to treating them as if they were guilty of thoughtcrime.
“It’s like if I fail my students for having the opposite opinion — would that be the right thing to do?” he asked. “Instead of [soldiers] driving around the campus, they should spend their time reading and meditating.”
Although university professors by and large have not been directly pressured by their institutions, the academics interviewed by Spectrum are under the impression their employers have not done enough to support them.
According to the Internet Dialogue on Law Reform (iLaw), as of last month the NCPO had either summoned or visited the homes of at least 790 individuals since last year’s coup. Of that total, at least 65 are academics.
Sawatree Suksri, an assistant professor of law at Thammasat University, has had monthly visits to her house by three to five army officers who arrive in pickup trucks, with each visit lasting no more than 15 minutes.
The officers generally speak in a polite and friendly manner with academics, as opposed to their tough attitude when dealing with politicians and activists. But those who spoke to Spectrum described the meetings as intimidating, despite the lack of rudeness and discussions over general issues.
“Regardless of their manner, I don’t think the presence of military officers at home is considered normal,” Ms Sawatree said. “It is a form of intimidation. It is sending the signal that we are no longer free.”
Ms Sawatree and Worachet Pakeerut, also from the same faculty, are core members of Thammasat University’s Enlightened Jurists Group, known as Nitirat. The group faced heavy criticism over its 2012 campaign to amend the lese majeste law.
Both were summoned by the NCPO just after the coup, with Mr Worachet, an expert in administrative law, asked to attend an “attitude adjustment” session. They are required not to express their opinions on politics in public and need to get permission to travel overseas. A violation would result in facing charges and having their assets seized.
The end result was that instead of holding press conferences on the constitution, Nitirat members had to issue written statements or give personal interviews instead. Mr Worachet’s attendance at public seminars since the coup has been limited to three — much less than he would have been to in the past.
Mr Worachet was indicted by military prosecutors on Aug 4 last year for defying NCPO orders to report to the military council. Since then, three to five officers meet him at the faculty every one to two months in what he describes as a “very polite” manner.
“I asked them why I still had to be monitored when I am already required to report to the court. They couldn’t provide me with an answer,” he said.
“Having people check on us all the time is like having ‘Big Brother’ watching over you. And for what? They are wasting their time, but on the other hand it is probably a psychological act.”
STUDENTS OF DISCIPLINE: Titipol Phakdeewanich gets regular checks by military men at his faculty.
UNDER WATCH: Titipol Phakdeewanich at a lecture on fighting corruption with US embassy officials. He has been monitored on at least eight occasions.
OFF-CAMPUS ACTIVISM: Fourteen student activists, including seven members of Khon Kaen’s Dao Din movement, were released in June.
SIGN OF THE TIMES: A banner condemning dictatorship at Mahasarakham University.
ESCORTS: Mr Titipol was overtly monitored during a visit by the UNDP undersecretary.