In conversation: Tyrell Haberkorn and Kevin Hewison

Interview with the two academics who head signature supports from 224 international scholars to back article 112 reform campaign, amidst the nationwide uproar

On Wednesday, 224 international scholars from 16 countries, including Noam Chomsky, Cornell West, Chris Baker and Craig Reynolds, have backed the call of the Campaign Committee to Amend Article 112 (CCAA112) to amend the article 112 to be in line with human rights and rule of law, using the proposal of Nitirat group as blueprint. 

Prachatai interviews Tyrell Haberkorn, Research Fellow from the Department of Political and Social Change of Australia National University, and Kevin Hewison, Professor of Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill about recent developments of backlashes against the reform of article 112.

How would you respond to Deputy PM Chalerm Yubamrung's
comment on Thursday, about those 224 academics supporting the amendment of 112 should go back and work them in your own countries?

Haberkorn: My response to Deputy PM Chalerm Yubamrung’s comment that the 224 academics supporting the amendment of Article 112 should go back to their countries and work there is that … we do! To think of a few people on the list, and the work of theirs that I would highlight (note: they might highlight other work)…

Noam Chomsky has been a loud and clarion critic of different repressive U.S. policies and laws for decades. He has consistently criticized the foreclosure of the freedom of speech in the United States. Mark Selden, historian and editor of the Asia-Pacific Journal, has documented and written against U.S. military bases in Japan and other countries for many years. Chris Hedges, journalist and writer, has consistently investigated U.S. complicity and violence during war, fearlessly exposed the ways in which the U.S. government stifles dissent, and has been an even more important public thinker in the months since Occupy Wall Street began. Robert Meeropol, executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, founded and runs an organization that supports children in the U.S. whose parents have been attacked as a result of their involvement in movements for social justice. Cornel West has consistently worked in the service of civil rights, labor rights, and other democratic movements in the United States. Sarah Schulman, novelist, playwright, and professor, has been a long-time advocate around LGBT issues, HIV/AIDS, and women’s rights in the United States.

My own involvement in fighting against injustice began in 1994 in the United States, the country where I was born and of which I am a citizen, when I joined a demonstration in front of the Department of Justice protesting proposed state restrictions on women’s reproductive rights and has continued up to protesting during the long years of U.S.-led wars and present-day indefinite detention. In Australia, the country where I currently live and work, I join protests for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Similar comments could be made about many of those on the list, whose commitment to fighting injustice is one that began at home.

So the direct answer is that most of us do work against injustice in our own countries. The point of this letter, if the deputy prime minister read it carefully, is explicitly one of solidarity. The people who signed the letter signed it in order to show our support for the courageous actions of our colleagues in the Khana Nitirat and the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 who proposed the amendment of Article 112. The reaction in the weeks since the initial launch of the campaign on 15 January demonstrates why solidarity is necessary.

Hewison: I am very pleased that Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm and several other ministers have taken note of the open letter signed by 223 academics concerned about human rights. This group includes some of the world's leading scholars, so I am pleased that the letter is seen, heard and considered. The government has been clear and loud for some time in saying that it will not amend the law in question, so there is no surprise there.

I am unsure what the Deputy Prime Minister means by "work them in their own countries." In recent years, the lese majeste law has been used mostly against Khun Chalerm's party's own supporters. Essentially, the signatories were concerned to support Thai academics who are asking that Thai laws restricting freedom of expression and that are used for political purposes be reconsidered.  Those calling for a consideration of changes have the support of these 223 international scholars and intellectuals.

As someone who is from freer academic atmosphere, what is your opinion about the consensus of TU board not to allow any groups to use campus to talk/organize about lese majeste law?

Haberkorn: I was very pleased to see the news today that the TU rector had chosen to allow academic seminars on Article 112 to resume. The initial decision to not allow these discussions to happen was concerning. Like many people, I followed the news of the rising contention on the campus with concern, and was particularly disturbed by the burning of the effigy of Ajarn Worachet Pakeerut last weekend. Yet it is precisely at the moment of contention when the challenge is to facilitate safe and open discussion, rather than foreclose it. My, perhaps naïve, view is that this is part of the role of universities in society.

Hewison: As someone who has studied Thailand's politics and development for more than three decades I have always thought of Thammasat University as a bastion of academic freedom and political rights. I know that there have been times when authorities and university administrators have attempted to limit or close this space. Such actions have usually been associated with dictatorial regimes. That is why the current decision to close political space is so startling.

It wasn't that long ago that the university's administration permitted the PAD to rally at the University and defended this as the proper use of public facilities that needed to be open. That position seems quite reasonable and proper. That is why it is so disappointing that the current administration has now decided to take actions that limit freedoms and rights. I believe that this is a retrograde step, not just for Thammasat, but for the deepening of democratic practices more generally.

There're almost clashes on Thursday between the supporters of Nitirat and those who are against, do you think this would make the TU consensus more legitimate, that they don't want any violence happened in the campus?

Haberkorn: I recognize the concern that the TU administration has for the prevention of incidences of violence on campus, and I do not want to discount the gravity of the potential for violence. But it seems to me that the challenge here is two-fold, and the issues are interconnected: how can needed and urgent discussions on the issue occur, and how can violence which might surround these discussions be prevented? Conversations about Article 112, and whether or not it should be amended, are going to take place whether or not they are permitted to take place on the TU campus. Is it possible that there are solutions which would limit the possibility of violence which do not involve the forbidding of certain topics of discussion? Might universities, and particularly TU, given its history, be the ideal places where discussions about contentious issues could take place? Rather than shutting down discussion, what could the university administration do to make the university a safe, constructive, and engaged place of debate?

Hewison: At the same meeting in 2008, where the PAD rallied at Thammasat, there actually were clashes. Then, the University administrators affirmed the position on openness.

That there may be clashes is not surprising as some very senior persons have spoken in highly emotional ways, attacking the Nitirat group in terms that are meant to incite hatred and action against it. This is a kind of politics that will inevitably remind some observers of the terrible events of 6 Oct 1976, where people were incited to be violent and murderous against those with whom they disagreed politically. Of course, political violence is always a convenient political weapon and rational debate is not always the norm.

In this current situation, it seems to me that the Nitirat group has repeatedly called for rational debate. In hindsight, that looks like a futile call as Nitirat and its proposals are simply a convenient focal point for a proxy battle in a much larger political conflict that is long-running and unresolved. If Nitirat wasn't an available target there would certainly be another found and used.

Some activists have expressed how much this is similar to October 6th incident, do you see any resemblance?

Haberkorn: I am wary of the claim of history repeating itself, in any time or context. Rarely is there sheer repetition. But I do think there are resonances worth examining between the two moments. What I see as similar between the present moment and the period before 6 October 1976 are the kinds of accusations and the kinds of violence being called for against those who are seen to dissent, by those both within the state and those outside it. The kinds of language used against the students at Thammasat in the days before the massacre and those used against the Khana Nitirat are similar in their tone, dehumanization, and explicit calls for violence.

In addition, there are similarities in the blurred line between those within the state and those outside the state calling for action against the Khana Nitirat. When General Prayuth publicly states that the members of the Khana Nitirat should leave the country this is different than the anonymous comments on the Manager website for them to be beheaded and their heads placed on stakes outside the Thammasat gates. Yet these kinds of statements should be considered together – and it is important to ask what kind of a signal, direct or indirect, it sends to citizens when the commander-in-chief of the army claims that seven law lecturers should leave the country because they drafted an amendment to a law. What does it indicate about present-day Thailand when a call to amend the law [and an amendment that leaves the institution of the monarchy intact, and still permits harsh punishments for actions judged to be lese majeste] is equated with revolt and disloyalty?

Yesterday (Febuary 3), Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said the international academics might have done so "out of a lack of understanding of the way of life of the Thai people, who have high respect for the country's highest institution," how would you respond to that?

Haberkorn: With respect to Foreign Minister Surapong, he appears to have misunderstood both the letter from international scholars, writers, and activists, and the proposal to amend Article 112. My question to Foreign Minister Surapong would be to ask, where, precisely, in the proposed amendment is there a phrase or sentence that disrespects the institution of the monarchy? To be clear: Calling for Article 112 to be amended does not equal, or even imply, a lack of respect for the institution of the monarchy. The proposed amendment has nothing to do with the respect for the institution of the monarchy or the sacredness of the institution. The proposed amendment instead aims to protect citizens from the constriction of speech and other violations of rights by making the punishment proportionate to the crime, limiting and regulating who can file complaints under the law [and so end the current witch hunt atmosphere], and clearly differentiating threats against the monarchy from truthful and sincere discussion and criticism.

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