Elite students receive a lesson in self-censorship
Thai university societies in the United Kingdom built their reputations on political debate, but are now cowering under close government scrutiny.
Teeraporn Suwanvidhu had a tough decision to make five years ago as president of the Thai Student Association in the UK: remove an article, or lose all support from the Thai Embassy next year.
The article was to be published in an annual journal run by the association — called Samaggi Samagom — and contained an interview with Giles “Ji” Ungpakorn, a Thai academic wanted by Thai authorities for lese majeste who now lives in exile in England.
Less than a week before the journal was to be published, Thailand’s then ambassador to the UK asked Ms Teeraporn to remove the five-page article, which was part of the journal’s theme that year on the red-yellow political divide.
“I asked him whether he had even read the article, which I thought was balanced and not provocative at all. His reply was that it wasn’t necessary, due to the only fact that Mr Giles’ name is on the ‘blacklist’,” said Ms Teeraporn. “It’s not even censorship. It’s something more than that.”
Fast-forward to 2016, and Samaggi Samagom faces even more hurdles during Thailand’s post-coup military government, as all project proposals are required to be screened by the embassy.
Ever since the 2014 coup, Samaggi has not held any forum related to politics, with events instead ranging from concerts to sports activities and debates regarding social issues.
“I believe in freedom of expression, but due to the political situation, it is better to avoid political discussions,” said current president Thanawat Silaporn, a final-year student at the University of London.
The result is self-censorship which emerges from the close-knit relationship between the embassy and raises a broader question of bureaucracy in Thai society and whether or not freedom of expression is valid even in a Western country.
“It’s like we’re an association within the boundaries of a school, and when we do anything out of the rules, we are punished by the headmaster,” said Ms Teeraporn.
Founded in 1901 by King Rama VI while he was studying at Oxford University, Samaggi Samagom is still widely perceived as a society for the elite. Notable former members include former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, engineer and former Nasa scientist Art-Ong Jumsai Na Ayudhya and former foreign minister Noppadon Pattama.
Samaggi Samagom is Thailand’s only student association under royal patronage and still maintains its original purpose as a hub for Thai students to connect, covering roughly 10,000 students in the UK.
The Thai Embassy in London and its Office of Educational Affairs (OEA) has a very large presence in the association’s activities, with embassy representatives, and sometimes the ambassadors themselves, attending all Samaggi Samagom events.
The close working relationship is reflected not only in the way the Samaggi office is located inside the OEA, but also by the way the embassy provides most of the funding for Samaggi’s current academic events.
Details of each project, including the estimated cost and revenue, need to be submitted to the embassy and OEA for prior approval, Mr Thanawat said.
When the Samaggi Academic Conferences was founded in 2008 as a platform for intellectual exchange among Thai students in the UK, topics at the time ranged from the role of military, the future of democracy in Thailand and >> >> the economic outlook. Previous committees have invited Thai politicians or ex-politicians to share their perspectives on development in Thailand. Since the 2014 military coup, however, no politically-related academic events were held.
“We try not to hold events that are too sensitive, otherwise it will definitely not be approved [by the embassy],” Mr Thanawat told Spectrum in London.
The Thai embassy in London and the OEA did not respond to requests for comment.
A PLATFORM FOR DISCUSSION
Many politically sensitive events have in recent years been hosted by Thai societies or academic centres in universities in place of Samaggi Samagom to avoid controversy. The University of London’s Centre of South East Asian Studies, for instance, has been active in organising events related to Thailand, including panel discussions on the democratic crisis.
Mr Thanawat, who regards himself as politically active, was himself president of the Thai Society at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in 2014-2015, where a panel discussion was held in November 2014 on the situation in Thailand under martial law.
Last year, former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij, legal expert Verapat Pariyavong and former member of the defunct National Reform Council Sombat Thamrongthanyawong were invited to talk about issues ranging from politics to the economy and constitution.
A month after the 2014 coup, Soas held a talk by self-exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who spoke on the coup and the future of the Thai democracy.
A member of Samaggi Samagom’s 2012 executive committee told Spectrum that members were asked to attend talks with embassy officials regarding academic events that were deemed too sensitive, such as those related to the red-yellow political divide, as well as issues surrounding the monarchy.
A discussion related to the monarchy titled “Thailand: State of Denial”, in which Samaggi invited Thongchai Winichakul, was eventually hosted by Soas.
Tharm Smuthranond, 20, president of the Thai Society at Soas, said in the past it had been “the place for discussion surrounding Thailand” and attracted politically active people.
But this year, under the helm of Mr Tharm, Soas will break its tradition of organising controversial political topics and instead focus on Thai culture and Buddhism.
“People are fed up with political problems in Thailand, and we want foreigners to see something else apart from the rotten politics,” he said. “While our culture is unique, the political problems we face are not unique to Thailand.”
As a member of the Samaggi Samagom executive committee, Mr Tharm oversees academic issues, and conceded that he has avoided holding events that touched upon “sensitive” topics due to the association’s direct ties with the embassy, as well as the risk it will cause conflict.
AVOIDING THE REAL ISSUE
Chan Nilgianskul, an MBA student at London Business School who attended several Soas events last year that were directly related to politics, sees Samaggi events as “very conformist”.
“Samaggi events are often too diplomatic and ‘Thai style’. It doesn’t tackle controversial and serious questions about Thailand such as politics, religion, culture and the monarchy,” he said.
“It does not encourage Thai students in the UK to use their freedom of thought and expression to question the social and structural norms of Thailand and think about what might be done differently on those controversial issues.”
Last year’s academic conference featured a discussion on education by Pongthep Thepkanchana, a former education minister in the Yingluck Shinawatra government. This year’s will focus on climate change.
“People here aren’t that interested in politics anyway, so I think it’s pointless [to organise a political discussion] … and we don’t want to create an atmosphere that creates conflict,” said Mr Thanawat.
“This is not because we are afraid of suppression or surveillance, but because Samaggi needs to deal with the embassy.”
Samaggi Samagom vice-president Paladd Asavarut said that while the association has to be considerate to academic integrity, the perceptions of the Thai community, and also its sponsors when it comes to organising events, Samaggi must be creative in how it approaches and stimulates discussion of topics that are of high relevance to the future of Thailand.
This year’s discussion on climate change, for instance, may open up to the issue of politics, socio-economic divides and inequality, provided that the Thai student community approach this from their own standpoint.
“That being said, we have not been told or pressured to refrain from organising events related to Thai politics by the embassy or OEA,” said Mr Paladd.
THAILAND IN CRISIS
The influence of these students was also exerted in Thailand through Samaggi Sara, the association’s annual journal, which was widely read by members of the elite and the royal family. Established in 1922, articles from the journal at the time were frequently reprinted in the local press. Today, the journal garners little interest; some years it is not even printed.
“People saw it as thought provoking and a necessary read,” said social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, who contributed to the journal in the 1950s while he studied in Wales and London.
Former prime minister MR Seni Pramoj, for instance, who was a descendant of King Rama II, wrote about Buddhism in the journal while he studied at Oxford University.
“He wrote about the purpose of being a monk and how it wasted time,” recalled Mr Sulak. “When King Rama VI read it, he ordered MR Seni to be ordained.”
The 2011 issue of the journal was thought to be the most political in recent times, with the title of “Thailand in Crisis: Diagnosis and Prescription”. The 114-page journal featured articles in both Thai and English with the main theme focusing on political conflict, with topics ranging from economic equality, the constitution and the misuse of Thai nationalism by the anti-Thaksin Shinawatra People’s Alliance for Democracy.
The most recent issue of Samaggi Sara was in 2012, which ran for only 33 pages.
Apart from expressing themselves in Samaggi Sara, which Mr Sulak sees as lacking from the current Thai student society in the UK, student involvement in activism is also rarely heard of, unlike their predecessors.
When World War II broke out, for instance, many members of Samaggi Samagom refused to return to Thailand, despite a threat by the government that their Thai citizenship would be revoked. Instead, they set up the Seri Thai, or Free Thai, movement that rose against the Japanese occupation.
In 1977 when the then interior minister Samak Sundaravej visited the United Kingdom, he was met with protests by Samaggi members who considered him responsible for ordering the massacre of Thammasat University students on Oct 6 a year earlier.
“In the past, people wanted to study in the UK because it was considered a role model in democracy, but nowadays people only want a degree. Only once in a while you see someone who is brave,” said Mr Sulak. “Students should be independent and not act cowardly. Where are your guts, British students? I want to see something from them, at least a stance, such as opposing the [military-led] National Council for Peace and Order.”
When Titipol Phakdeewanich began his studies in the UK in 1996, he noticed that Thai university students were not all that political. Most of the events and activities that took place during his time as president of the Thai Society at the University of Warwick in 2000 and 2001 were mainly organised to strengthen the relationships and friendships of Thai students. Once a year, they organised “Thai Night”, which was to promote Thai cultural heritage.
But Thaksin Shinawatra took office in 2001, and with this, and the later emergence of the “yellow-shirts” as a force within the Thai political arena, it was only to be expected that the Thai students would begin to discuss politics more.
“An essential problem today is how notions such as ‘political sensitivity’ are defined, and what kinds of issues, activities, and so on, are now to be regarded as meriting such a strict classification,” said Mr Titipol, who is now deputy dean of administration at Ubon Ratchathani University’s faculty of political science.
In addition, the importance of the Thai concept of “phuyai” — which can translate as “elder” and/or “social superior” — needs to be recognised, he said. In terms of the current Thai social-political climate, it conveys the message that those who are younger, or considered inferior in status, are expected to be obedient and to unquestioningly submit themselves to the authority of the other individual, or of state institutions.
“The effect of this concept, either within or beyond the Thai border, is a key obstacle in the way of Thailand’s future progress, as it denies the opportunities for upcoming generations of Thai students to learn how to become more critical thinkers,” said Mr Thitipol. “It also reflects the role of Thai embassies across the globe to monitor, and, as deemed necessary, control student actions and events that may even touch on the issues that are currently regarded by the NCPO, as being of a ‘sensitive’ nature.”
Chantawit Tantasith, who was president of Samaggi Samagom in 2012, considers his executive team very much politically active, and considers freedom of speech a crucial issue.
An issue in concern is funding: Mr Chantawit said lowering the dependence on the embassy could be a way to mitigate the risks of not being able to organise politically sensitive issues. In 2011, when the committee was forced to pull out the article featuring an interview with Mr Giles, Samaggi secured the majority of its funds from the private sector. In 2012, Samaggi received 20% of its funding from the embassy. The current committee refused to disclose the public/private ratio, but said the embassy and OEA has provided almost £2,000 (about 102,700 baht) for academic events. The association’s recreational events, such as its annual concert and sports day, are funded by Thai companies.
With few controversial issues occurring in Thailand when Mr Chantawit took the helm, Samaggi was able to hold a video conference with academic Charnvit Kasetsiri on the 80th anniversary of the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy.
“Although we have a close relationship with the embassy, it doesn’t mean we will self-censor,” he said. “People think that if we receive support from the embassy, we need to kreng jai [be considerate], but in terms of what is right, the embassy has a direct role in supporting Thais. And there should not be any acts of return by saying or not saying things that they like or don’t like.”
FUN AND GAMES: Former Samaggi president Teeraporn Suwanvidhu at the Samaggi Games, a sports day event which draws thousands of participants from across the UK.