The Southeast Asian Human Rights Studies Network (SEAHRN), on 15 Oct, expressed its strong disappointment on the actions of the Thai and Vietnamese governments in their refusal to allow a Vietnamese scholar, Mr Vo Van Ai, to travel to Thailand to present a paper at the First International Conference on Human rights in Southeast Asia organized by the SEAHRN on October 14 and 15 in Bangkok. Mr Vo Van Ai, in a letter dated 7 October 2010, conveyed his shock at the attitude of the Thai government and said that scholars cannot engage in purposeful dialogue if they are obliged to censor their presentations under political pressure.
Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree, speaking on behalf of the SEAHRN, outlines how this action is against the statements made by the Royal Thai Government (RTG), as Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council, to uphold human rights. “The Thai Government claims that human rights are the cornerstone of Thai policy, yet they have for the second time refused the entrance of Vo Van Ai to Thailand. This is in clear breach of their commitment to human rights and to the ASEAN Charter.” As Prof Charnwit Kasetsiri added, “the Thai government, by easily conceding to the demands of the Vietnamese government, has showed how weak and insecure its attitudes to human rights are.
More disturbing is the precedence this action has set. As Assoc. Prof. Dr. Azmi Sharom explains, “this is a case of one ASEAN country colluding with another to curtail academic freedom.” He adds, “This is not merely the case of denying rights to the paper giver, Vo Van Ai, but it curtails the freedom of the whole academic community at the conference who are not given the chance to listen, engage, and debate Vo Van Ai’s ideas.”
The conference organizers also expressed the need for far greater respect of academic freedom in Southeast Asia. “Academic freedom is part and parcel of freedom of expression and opinion. It is essential to the development of a country through the dissemination of knowledge and the fostering of independence in students”, states Dr. Petcharamesree.
Academic freedom has been a fundamental right in universities around the world for much of the past 50 years. However, some ASEAN countries are slow to acknowledge this right. Malaysia, for instance, has laws that limit academic freedom while Indonesia has laws that protect academics from interference. Other ASEAN member countries have demonstrated poor records of academic freedom, with academics being threatened with loss of employment, refused visas to give talks, and in the worst cases, jailed.