Mahidol row goes to heart of intellectual freedom

national February 28, 2017 01:00


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History of pioneering academics shines light on value of universities as forums of open debate welcoming all opinions.

IN LIGHT of Mahidol University’s conflict with its Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies (IHRP) over the use of Article 44, it has become clear that national divisions have spread like an epidemic through academia. 


  • The university as an education institution must remain non-partisan in any conflict and open for people of different opinions to express their views.
  • If different opinions are silenced, the university risks losing the opportunity to hear solutions that could benefit society.
  • University staff members can take different political stances, but the powers-that-be at the university should not abuse their position regarding those who do not share their views.

On Sunday, Mahidol University announced an investigation of lecturers from the university’s IHRP, claiming that the institute’s use of the university’s name had damaged its reputation. 

Earlier, the institute issued its own statement condemning the junta-led government’s use of Article 44 under the interim constitution, which grants the prime minister near-absolute powers.

The fact that universities and intellectuals have historically played a leading role in bringing about dramatic changes in the country conveys a responsibility on subsequent generations to serve a similar role.

But because of the deep divide persisting over the past several years, ideologies adopted by students and academics in universities today vary. Moreover, differences can also be seen between managerial and subordinate staff members at universities, with clashes sometimes apparent to the public. 

This leads to a question of how universities as institutions should deal with differences within themselves as political conflict is rampant, as well as where to draw the line regarding freedom of speech and academic freedom at institutions that are supposed to serve the public interest in a non-partisan and fair manner.

Soraj Hongladarom, a lecturer from the Faculty of Arts of Chulalongkorn University, said that it was very important that universities remained non-partisan amid the conflict and provide an equal chance for people of different ideologies to express their opinions.

“The university should be one safe place that allows people to speak, to exchange ideas and debate the issues,” he said. “Students and academics hold the rights to express their views and take a stance, so long as they do not provoke violence or lead people to kill one another.”

He said that if there are conflicts, the university should allow parties to debate issues reasonably. Society could be the judge of the debate and choose who to believe based on the reasons provided, Soraj said.

The university had no right to silence its staff, the lecturer said, adding such an action was unhealthy for society as ideas would be limited.

“The university is a free intellectual market. If you silence people, then the customers or the members of society have a limited choice of thoughts to choose from,” Soraj said.

The academic said silencing people with different opinions also discouraged those who might have a good ideas or solutions who would refrain from expressing their thoughts. 

Anusron Unno, a sociology and anthropology professor from Thammasat University, said the recent clash between Mahidol University and the IHRP was not an example of limited academic freedom, although the university had used the term to generate misunderstanding.

Rather, he said the institution exercised its freedom of speech, which the university had no right to limit.

He said all staff members should be treated equally, adding that in the past couple of years many people had joined political movements and even sat in bodies set up by the coup-installed regime.

Anusron said he agreed that the university should be free and fair to everyone regarding political matters. The most important issue, he said, was that the powers-that-be at a university should not abuse their authority selectively.

“People can have different political stances, that’s totally fine. You can get yourself into politics in any way you want as long as you don’t fail to do your job in the university,” he said. “But one thing that cannot be right is abusing your power or position against those whose opinions differ from yours.”

If such a thing happened, Anusorn said, academics had to stand against to protect rights and freedoms.

“It had nothing to do with different stances. It is just that it has to be fair and not discriminatory,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Thai Academic Network For Civil Rights (TANC) expressed disappointment over Mahidol University’s statement condemning actions by the IHRP. The TANC said the action was a violation of academic freedom that championed the junta-led government’s interests, and asked the university to halt its disciplinary procedures.

“In the past, some of its staff, both under their own names and under the university’s, expressed political stances, pressuring for the postponement of an election that led to the resignation of an elected government,” the TANC’s statement read.

“Taking into consideration the context, such an action could be deemed a violation of bureaucratic discipline, yet it did not appear that the university’s board took any action.” 

The TANC expressed support for the IHRP’s “responsibility” and “courage”, while proposing that the university board should discuss the matter rationally as befitted academics rather than threatening the institute by taking disciplinary action.

The university appeared to be favouring the junta-led government and sheltering it from allegations of abuse of power, the TANC statement read, arguing that such actions would harm the university’s image and status in the long run.

The network also emphasised that it stood by freedom of expression regarding political views and criticised any actions that did not conform to the rule of law and human rights principles, which it called the pillars of a peaceful and democratic society.


Free speech limitations in academia

  • Thammasat University rector Somkid Lertpaithoon announced in 2012 that any movement or activity opposing lese majeste laws should be banned inside the university. 
  • Chiang Mai University banned Midnight University, a virtual university set up for public education, from holding a press conference regarding its rejection of the junta-backed constitution last year.
  • Khon Kaen University forbade the student activist group Dao Din from using the university to stage a free speech activity regarding the constitution last year.
  • Chulalongkorn Community for the People (CCP), a group of student activists, attempted to campaign for the release of lese majeste prisoner Somyot Prueksakasemsuk at the Chula-Thammasat Traditional Football match in 2013 but were banned by the staff.

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