On May 22, 2014, the Thai military overthrew the country’s democratically elected government. This was the twelfth successful coup since 1934 and the most recent in a string of 19 attempted coups. On August 7, 2016, a draft constitution written by the military government was approved by referendum. While the current junta claims to be moving towards a democratic system with elections slated for December 2017, the new constitution maintains a high level of military influence in the future governance of the country. And in the wake of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s recent death, Thailand’s situation has become more uncertain than ever. Faculty and students are encountering increased restrictions on free speech and, by extension, academic freedom.
Academic Freedom in Thailand
Freedom of expression is a constitutional right in Thailand. The new constitution includes academic freedom as a subset of freedom of expression. Within this section, the new constitution states: “Academic freedom shall be protected, provided that the exercise of such freedom shall not be contrary to the duties of Thai people or good morals of people and shall respect and not impede differing opinions of other persons.” (Thailand Constitution, 2016).
While the inclusion of academic freedom in Thailand’s constitution suggests a high level of protection, the reality is that academic freedom is under siege. Existing protections are weakened by restrictions that allow the junta to use edicts such as the lèse-majesté law, Referendum Act, and Articles 12 and 44 of the interim constitution to stifle political dissent and academic freedom.
Military governments in Thailand have a history of repressing academic freedom and the general freedom of expression through the application of a lèse-majesté law. However, since the current government took power, the law’s application has been greatly expanded. Whereas it previously only applied to statements made in the public sphere, the junta has extended the application of lèse-majesté into the private domain. In the current political climate, even something as innocent as a sarcastic Facebook post about the king’s dog can lead to charges.
Somsak Jeamteerasakul of Thammasat University, a junta critic, was charged even before the current junta took power. A renowned historian, Jeamteerasakul suggested that the monarchy should be modernized. Jeamteerasakul fled the country shortly after the events of May 22, 2014, having already faced intimidation and attempts on his life prior to the coup.
Students have also seen their freedom of expression, and by extension, academic freedom, abridged by the NCPO’s dictates. On December 22, 2016, according to Scholars at Risk, student activist Jatupat Boonpattararaksa of KhonKaen University, was arrested under the lèse-majesté law, because he shared a BBC article about the new king over Facebook.
The Referendum Act
Prior to the August referendum, the junta issued a law known as the Referendum Act. This law prohibited any action that discouraged voting in the referendum. A small, but significant group of students known as the New Democracy Movement actively campaigned against the new constitution. In response, 13 were arrested.
The application of the Referendum Act clearly violates the academic freedom of the members of New Democracy Movement. As students and academics, they should have freedom to express evidenced-based opinions about any topic, including those of a political nature. By arresting and detaining students who disseminate conclusions based on their analysis of the draft constitution, the junta denied academic freedom to the students of the New Democracy Movement. The number of affected academics to date may be low, but in a repressive environment, they may be the only ones brave enough to openly defy the government.
Article 44 of the interim constitution allows the head of the National Council for Peace and Order (the junta) “to issue an order to restrain and perform any action deemed necessary, regardless of whether such an action interferes with legislative, executive or judicial force”, as Daorueng (University World News 2016, November 18), notes. Article 44 effectively provides legal cover to deviate from the constitution and provides ample latitude to impinge on academic freedom.
One of the orders issued under the authority granted by Article 44, NCPO Order No. 3/2015, contains two important, relevant articles. The first, Article 5, allows “peacekeeping officers” to forcibly halt the dissemination of any material that is deemed “likely to cause public alarm or which contains false information likely to cause public misunderstanding to the detriment of national security or public order” (NCPO Order No. 3/2015, Article 5). According to Phuaphansawat in the recent Scholars At Risk report, this has been used against student activists and faculty who oppose the junta.
The second, Article 12, prohibits political gatherings of more than five people unless express permission is granted by the junta. Since this article went into effect in April 2015, more than 80 academic talks have been interrupted or cancelled for being in violation of the article.
Students have waged symbolic, non-violent protests. Some students began hosting picnics where they gave out sandwiches as an anti-coup activity. In response, the government invoked Article 12 to forbid picnics and handing out sandwiches. Public readings of George Orwell’s 1984 have become another form of protest. The junta responded by effectively outlawing the reading of the novel, according to Phuaphansawat.
More recently, the junta has invoked Article 44 of the interim constitution to interfere in university governance. The NCPO has issued a new order under Article 44 authorizing the Ministry of Education to intervene directly in university affairs. Daorueng observes that the order has allowed the Ministry of Education to completely dissolve some university councils and replace them with Ministry personnel. In undermining university autonomy, the government has dismantled the barrier that protects academics from outside influence. Without the protection afforded by university autonomy, faculty are likely to encounter greater restrictions on academic freedom.
Although Thailand’s new constitution provides significant, explicit protections for academic freedom, the reality is that a number of laws are now in place to circumvent these protections. Academic freedom in the country is clearly in jeopardy.
Kathryn Hanson is a student in the Masters of International Higher Education program at Boston College.
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