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They Shoot the Intellectuals First
July 12, 2011 - 9:45pm

What happens when your scholarship is considered a crime? When the state tries to stop you? What do you do when you know what you must write could potentially land you in jail? Do we have a responsibility to write, or is this purely a selfish endeavor?

I’m working on a book project that has consumed me for some time. One of the chapters is an article that I’ve been hanging on to and thinking about for the past three years, reluctant to publish it or speak about it in a public forum, or have it mentioned on-line. I have friends that have asked me not to work on it, suggesting that I work on something less dangerous.

In other posts I’ve discussed my love of Southeast Asia, and specifically Thailand. Thailand intrigues me on so many levels, and speaks to something deep within me that I can’t quite articulate. But the Land of Smiles is also deeply flawed and dangerous. Thai politics are contentious, in constant upheaval and often deadly. Thai elections occurred in early July, electing the party of one of the most corrupt players in Thai politics; his sister will be Thailands first female Prime Minister. More ominous may be the impending death of the world’s longest reigning monarch and Thailand’s beloved paternal figure, King Bhumibol. Both events represent a critical turning point in the political life of Thailand.

The Thai monarchy has managed to maintain Thai national identity through a well-crafted and deeply institutionalized cult of personality surrounding the King and the royal family. At the heart of maintaining this order are the worlds strictest lese majeste laws, which make any insult towards the royal family a crime punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. Anyone can bring an accusation forward, and anything can be perceived as an insult.

This has had a stultifying effect on scholarship on Thailand, a country that has important strategic ties to the United States and within Asia. Books that delve too deeply into the lives of the royals are banned in Thailand and their authors are persona non grata. Blog authors have been arrested for violating the lese majeste and computer crime laws that forbid posting links to material deemed insulting to the royal family or threaten the security of the state. Those who wish to be critical must quietly conduct research while in the country; after publishing, they know that they may never return to the country. This is a choice I’m now facing, and will have to make.

Others have put themselves on the line for far more important reasons than my academic interest in Thai politics. My work doesn’t necessarily seek to right a wrong in the activist sense, simply to point to the mechanisms of control exerted over civil society; thus I could put myself in danger for no reason other than my own intellectual curiosity. But I also hope my work will make a difference. I believe that I have a right—and a duty—to continue.

Whatever the personal reasons we each have for studying what we do, I believe that we write because we suspect that answering the questions that drive us will benefit others. That takes courage. Whether we write about the role of women in academia, about glass ceilings, discrimination, human trafficking or critique US foreign policy, we must accept that we’ll face some kind of consequences if we’ve told the truth and told it well. It may not land us in a Thai prison, but there are plenty of other risks to speaking truth to power.

Good scholarship may require that we put ourselves on the line. But we cannot allow fear of reprisals—from our peers, university systems and other officials—to foreclose the pursuit of communicating ideals and ideas. If we allow ourselves to be censored and silenced, does our work have any real meaning?


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