Silence in universities won't make reconciliation easier

 
The cancellation and breaking up of talks believed to be critical of coup-makers in recent days have sent shock waves beyond the academic community here in Thailand.
 
This was yet another signal from the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) that it will not tolerate any form of dissent - not even inside university walls. 
 
Perhaps this offers an insight into the junta's deep-rooted insecurity four months after the May 22 coup.
 
A few weeks after taking over, the junta began censoring media, especially broadcast media, instructing them not to interview academics. Now academics want to speak out inside the walls of institutions such as Thammasat and Chiang Mai universities, but they continue to be silenced. 
 
The NCPO's hardline stance reflects their fear of people's, particularly intellectuals', deliberation. The cancellation of talks - such as the one at Thammasat University's Rangsit Campus last Thursday where academics wanted to discuss the fall of dictatorships overseas - were done in the name of maintaining unity and order. 
 
In a letter written on behalf of the NCPO to the Thammasat administrator, Colonel Pallop Fuengfu, commander of the Second Field Artillery Regiment, said the talk on foreign dictatorships "might affect the solving of national problems and create a division and differing political attitudes again".
 
Sadly, the junta doesn't realise that forcing people to keep their mouths shut is the very recipe for creating social and political division. 
 
Instead of allowing some 150 students to gather inside a classroom in Thammasat, the NCPO has succeeded in gaining the attention of a much wider crowd both locally and internationally after some 60 academics from 16 universities wrote an open letter on Sunday condemning the crackdown. 
 
Yet, the junta was unperturbed and went ahead by getting a talk scheduled for tomorrow at Chiang Mai University cancelled because one of the invited speakers is believed to be against the coup. 
 
Though Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha insists nobody has been arrested in relation to these talks, the fact still remains that all four speakers at Thammasat University, including well-known historian Nidhi Eoseewong, and the three students who organised the forum had been "invited" for questioning. 
 
The chilling effect of facing questions posed by two soldiers is unmistakable.
 
Now, one should not mistake forced silence for national reconciliation. In fact, the junta is making its task of "restoring" democracy and creating national unity very doubtful by quieting differing voices. 
 
Perhaps, General Prayut fails to realise that he will look more like a dictator if he shuts down peaceful channels of dissent. 
 
Also, pro-democracy academics' mettle is being tested. It will soon be clear if they will allow their universities to be turned into the junta's playground where freedom of speech is replaced with unquestioning obedience. 
 
While it may be difficult to change this state of affairs, it is not too late to defend freedom inside university walls. 
 
The article is first published on The Nation