Foreign academics at Thai Studies Conference send weak and meaningless message to Thai junta

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

 

Despite the military junta, the repression and the destruction of academic freedom in Thailand, it was “business as usual” for most of the foreign academics who attended the 13th International Thai Studies Conference in Chiang Mai last week.

Because academics from outside Thailand attended this conference it legitimised the military dictatorship. This is the real message sent out internationally despite the limp and meaningless declaration by 31 foreign academics and 145 Thai academics.

The declaration was limp and meaningless because abstract calls for academic freedom and democracy and the freeing of political prisoners will just be ignored by the junta. It isn’t worth the paper upon which it is written. What is more, they couldn’t even bring themselves to demand the abolition of the draconian lèse majesté law.

I do not in any way criticise the Thai academics who signed this declaration. That was a reasonably brave thing to do. But I criticise the foreign academics who signed the declaration so that they could absolve their consciences. And let us be clear. Not all the foreign academics even bothered to sign. Missing from the list of signatures were some of the so-called “key note speakers”.

What is more, the junta have now summonsed 3 Thai academics, who attended the conference, for posing with a sign stating that “Universities Are Not Military Camps”. As Pinkaew Laungaramsri, one of the three academics, explained, they put up this sign because the conference was full of security personnel in plain clothes who never bothered to register and who sat in meetings, took notes and photographed people. Yet the declaration by the 176 academics never even addressed this problem.

An important question for the western academics now is what are they going to do to protect these three lecturers? (photo above)

A few days ago, at 6:45 am, plain clothed military officers paid a visit to Sanhanut Sartaporn (above) at his secondary school and threatened him with violence if he did not stop posting articles critical of Generalissimo Prayut on social media. “If you don’t stop criticising our boss, we’ll send your name to people and who knows what will happen to  you”, they told to him. Sanhanut is part of an activist student group called “Education for Freedom”. They have criticised the way the junta leader has intervened in education policy.

A much more powerful message to the junta would have been the total boycotting of such a conference held in Thailand. They could have organised an alternative conference outside the country and purposely invited those Thai academics in exile to speak, all expenses paid. I say “all expenses paid” because many of the exiled Thai academics in Europe and elsewhere, who are on the junta’s “wanted list”, have had to give up their academic jobs and now survive on low incomes.

There are also exiled students and journalists living frugal lives. Most of these people have been granted political asylum. What a message such an alternative conference would have sent out to the world about the state of Thailand, but also about the need to defend asylum seekers and migrants!!

As already stated, foreign academics attending the conference in Thailand helped to legitimise the military junta and its plans for a military controlled “Guided Democracy” system after any future elections. The participants would have been rubbing shoulders with various toadies of the junta during dinners and ceremonies. Remember that all the academic administrators in Thai universities have collaborated with the junta’s repression.

For Thai citizens the present political situation does not allow people to discuss the vicious and demented new king, who not only abuses women but who also personally consumes millions of much needed public funds. The military has blood on its hands from shooting down unarmed pro-democracy activists and is totally tainted with corruption. Like the king, the military has helped itself to billions in order to buy new weapons. Such funds are urgently needed to provide a decent welfare state, education and health care for the majority of the population. Yet Thai citizens are being told by the junta that there is “no money” to improve these services and people face having to retire at a later stage in life while having to pay for health care. None of this could be discussed at the Thai Studies Conference.

People are being arrested and jailed or carted off for “attitude changing sessions” in secret locations for using social media in a manner which upsets the generals.

Among the political prisoners in Thai jails, who are often tried in military courts, are some prominent students who have been locked up for questioning military rule and corruption or staging political plays in a universities. Political seminars and discussions in universities and public places have been banned or shut down by soldiers.

The bottom line is that there is no such thing as academic freedom in Thailand today. The exception is the select few privileged foreign academics who haunt the Thai Studies conferences, making sure that they don’t upset the people who are in power. For these pathetic people, their careers and visas to visit Thailand are more important than freedom, democracy and human rights among the very people they claim to study.

More details about political prisoners: https://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com/

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