Academic freedom under attack in Thailand, says new report

A new report published by Scholars at Risk (SAR) found that students in Thailand who criticize the monarchy and demand democratic reforms face legal prosecution and state violence, while academic research regarding the monarchy is met with lawsuits and investigations, eroding academic freedom in the country.

A protester holding a picture of student activist Benja Apan, currently detained pending trial on royal defamation charges, during a daily "Stand agaisnt Detention" event in October 2021

The report “Free to Think 2021,” published by the Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project on 9 December 2021, found that while the Covid-19 pandemic disrupts education, keeping institutions in remote operation and suspending travel, scholars and students continued to raise questions, concerns, and criticisms about state responses to the pandemic, government accountability, and societal inequities both in the classroom and in public, leading to attempts by opposing parties to silence them.

SAR reported 332 attacks on members of higher education communities between September 2020 – August 2021 in 65 countries. According to the report, 110 scholars and students have been killed, attacked, or abducted while 101 have been imprisoned. 34 are facing legal prosecution, 34 lost their positions, while 6 faced legal travel restrictions. 47 other attacks were not classified but typically included military raids and occupations, legislation or administrative actions which limit institutional autonomy, and harassment intending to undermine academic freedom.

In Thailand, SAR reported that students expressing criticism of the monarchy and demanding democratic reforms were faced with arrest and legal prosecution. Scholars and intellectuals experience pressures over their work about the monarchy, while the royal defamation law, or Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, remains a threat to academic freedom and other fundamental rights.

SAR reported that, since July 2020, students have been arrested and prosecuted for joining peaceful protests, as well as for online expression and artistic expression. Student protest leaders have been arrested and face several charges, including violation of the Emergency Decree, sedition, and royal defamation, with many of them denied bail and detained pending trial amid the Covid-19 pandemic, raising concerns among rights groups.

SAR also reported two attacks on pro-democracy student protests. During a protest at Ramkhamhaeng University on 21 October 2020, a royalist counter-protester threw a large speaker at Thitima Butdee, leader of the student activist group Ramkhamhaeng Network for Democracy, during a clash between the two groups. Several days earlier, on 16 October 2020, police deployed water cannons against students and civilians protesting at the Pathumwan intersection. The water was stained with blue dye to identify protesters and laced with chemical irritants.

Meanwhile, research on the monarchy has become the subject of lawsuits and investigation by university authorities. In March 2021, a lawsuit was filed against historian Nattapol Chaiching, his publisher Same Sky Books, and its editor-in-chief, the editors of each volume, and his PhD thesis supervisor, former Faculty of Political Science lecturer Kullada Kesboonchoo Mead, for two books based on Nattapol’s PhD thesis about Thai politics during the Cold War period.

The lawsuit was filed by Mom Rajawongse Priyanandana Rangsit, a granddaughter of Rangsit Prayurasakdi, Prince of Chai Nat, who claimed that Nattapol’s books contain misleading information about her grandfather, damaging his reputation. She is seeking 50 million baht in compensation.

Arrests and prosecutions of peaceful student protesters “undermine academic freedom and the role universities play in functioning democracies,” says the report, which notes that students and academics must be free to voice dissent, ask questions, and conduct research without fear of legal prosecution for education and the society to flourish.

SAR then called on the Thai authorities to release and drop charges against student activists, repeal Section 112, amend the sedition law, and draft legislation to ensure protection of academic freedom. It also calls on the international community to pressure the Thai authorities to take these actions and to support Thai students and scholars.

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