Academic freedom is dying under military rule: Universities must step up 

opinion September 09, 2017 01:00

By Titipol Phakdeewanich
Special to The Nation

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Ever since it interrupted Thailand’s democratic progress by seizing power from the people in the 2014 military coup, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has maintained that suppressing freedom of expression is crucial to its timeline for a return to democracy.

This is despite continuous criticism from within and outside the country over the state of civil liberties under junta rule. 

For the past three years, the NCPO has been fairly successful in integrating itself into everyday public and political life. Its critics, meanwhile, have attempted to regain public space to speak out against the current politics of fear and intimidation, enforced in the name of “national security” and “political stability”. 

This “new normal” of public acceptance for suppression of dissent against the military raises a question: will Thailand forever overrule the universal concept of free expression and instead develop its own version of democracy without endorsing certain basic civil liberties?

In its 2017 rankings for countries, rights NGO Freedom House rated Thailand’s “Political Rights” at 6, and “Civil Liberties” at 5, using a scale of 1-7, with 7 being “Least Free”. Overall it rated Thailand as “Not Free”. This reflected the position of a country under military rule – though the report was largely rejected by the military’s supporters.  

Out of Thailand’s 65 million people, only a small group – including some academics – have been monitored, harassed or labelled as troublemakers by the NCPO and its supporters.

This relatively small number might explain why Thai people in general have shown little concern at such suppression.

Between 2014 and 2015, during a number of interactions with the military that included “invitations” to its base in Ubon Ratchathani province, I was asked not to organise a public seminar on democracy and human rights, and instead support the democratisation process under the NCPO. The question then arose of whether it is possible to leave democracy and its return in military hands. 

In July 2015, the military sent invitations to me and several other representatives from four universities in Ubon Ratchathani. Attached was NCPO Order No 3/2015 on Maintaining Public Order and National Security, which cited Article 44 of the interim constitution, granting absolute power to the prime minister. The invitation said the attachment was merely official procedure, with no intention of threatening the recipients.

In reality, it could only be understood as part of the deliberate cultivation of a climate of fear and intimidation against the academic community – a move which demanded a strong response from Thailand’s universities. Unfortunately, the universities remained silent and bowed to NCPO rule.  

On Tuesday, I was again invited to the military base in Ubon Ratchathani, regarding an upcoming seminar on the role of the Thai Human Rights Commission, to be held by the Political Science Faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University. The military warned the event could not go ahead on campus without permission from the NCPO.

A more serious attack on the academic community came recently with the charges laid against Professor Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, organiser of the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies, and a number of attendees. The charges came after criticism of the conference by the NCPO, criticism which Thai universities have remained silent towards. Indeed, none of the country’s 120 private and public universities has shown the courage to defend academic freedom.

Over the past decade, a number of Thai universities have functioned as a political machine against democracy. 

(We note here a stark contrast with the pro-democracy movement at Thammasat University and others in the late 1970s.)

Arthit Ourairat, the president and owner of Rangsit University, one of Thailand’s top private universities, was actively involved in the 2013-2014 protests by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). A large number of senior executives and leading academics from public institutions such as Chulalongkorn, Thammasat and Mahidol universities were also heavily involved in the PDRC, and some continue to serve the military regime.

While leaning towards the junta, Thai universities have been reluctant to protect freedoms on campuses, in part because they consider the military’s attacks on academic freedom as personal problems. Once universities take a lead in endorsing military rule, then academic freedom is in jeopardy. 

It is time for Thai universities to re-examine their commitment to protecting academic freedom. The prime purpose of a university is to serve the public and the academic community, not to function as a government agency whose duty is to follow the orders of the junta.

Academic voices and events must not be denounced as a threat to national security and the NCPO’s timeline for democracy. This dangerous trend has been inflated by growing distrust in politicians amid polarisation in Thai politics over the past decade, at the expense of freedoms.

Democracy functions on the principles of freedom and liberty, while the military functions by orders and obedience. Thus, democracy and the military are mutually exclusive, existing in opposing realms. Thai universities cannot afford to mislead the public if they want democracy to survive and prosper. 

Unfortunately we are unlikely to see Thai universities find the courage to step up and protect academic freedom anytime soon. The ongoing decline of academic freedom in Thailand is therefore not merely the consequence of military pressure, but also due to universities actively 

permitting that freedom to 

suffocate under junta suppression. 

TITIPOL PHAKDEEWANICH is dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University, and a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at 

the University of Warwick in England.