Prayuth Can’t Guarantee Safety of Academics Who Criticize Him

Junta chairman and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha made a series of tempestuous comments on a variety of topics including academic freedom and expression Tuesday at Government House.

BANGKOK — Junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha said he would not be able to guarantee the safety of university lecturers who continue to criticize his military regime.

His comment came as six academics reported to police to hear charges of violating the junta’s ban on political activities for organizing a news conference last month at which they asked Gen. Prayuth’s government to respect freedom of speech.

“If they want to engage in activism or whatever, it’s up to them. If they aren’t afraid of the laws, it’s up to them. I don’t know about them. If the people want to join them, and then get in trouble for it, it’s up to them.” Gen. Prayuth said at Government House on Tuesday. “And if someone finds a gun and shoot them, or throws grenades at them, well, they have to live with that. If they aren’t afraid, it’s up to them.”

He quickly added that he was not personally threatening them. 

“But it wouldn’t be me, because I would never do such a thing,” Prayuth said. “I’m not being angry when I’m saying these thing. It’s just I’m talking a bit loudly.”

Gen. Prayuth was responding to a petition signed by 323 academics urging him to stop intimidating university lecturers and students who engage in political discussion and activism.

The petition was submitted Monday to Government House in support of the academics facing criminal charges over the Oct. 31 new conference in Chiang Mai province. The press event, titled Universities Are Not Baracks, called upon the junta to uphold freedom of expression in colleges and society.


Teachers Charged for Asking Junta to Respect Free Speech


Since staging overthrowing the elected government in May 2014, the ruling junta has imposed a ban on any form of protest, political activity and public criticism of its regime. Violators of the ban face trial by military tribunal and possible jail time if convicted.

Dozens of academic discussion forums have been either been blocked or forced to alter their topics by the military in the past year – one count put it at 72. Military officers have also been dispatched to monitor classes that touch on politics and democracy.

At yesterday’s news conference, Prayuth rejected the academics’ call for freedom, saying the junta-imposed laws clearly state what can and cannot be spoken in universities.

“They have to respect the rules for me. I am not troubled by what they speak, but I ask them, what do the laws say? The laws forbid them speaking [about certain issues] right now, and there are many other topics they can talk about,” he said. “Can they not just teach kids to be good people? Can they not just teach kids not to break the laws? Do they teach that? Come on!” 

He linked the call for free expression to those wanting to see the restoration of democracy, which he blames for Thailand’s political crises.

“They keep inciting people that they [want] an election. So what, do they want an election tomorrow, right away? What will they get in return for the election? Have the problems been fixed yet? Why don’t you ask them that? These academics, have they ever taken responsibility for the country’s damages? They have been teaching since they were young, now they’re old. Keep teaching that. Keep teaching people to have conflicts, keep teaching about unlimited democracy. Go ahead! Everyone probably likes them to teach that. They won’t even listen to their parents in the future. Wait and see.”

At that point in his comments, Prayuth’s outburst was so striking that one of his own aides intervened and advised him to tone down his tirade.

“For what!? You want me to lower my voice?” he said. “I don’t have to! I’m aware of what I’m doing.” 

Academics Report to Police

Six academics charged with violating the junta’s ban on political activities reported to police Tuesday to hear charges at the Chuang Puak Police Station in Chiang Mai province. 

The military filed the complaint against the eight after their Oct. 31 news conference in Chiang Mai, police said. The offense carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison.

One of the academics, Somchai Preechasilpakul, told reporters at the police station that he and the others denied the charge.

“Everyone of us insisted that expressing opinions is not against the laws,” said Somchai, who teaches law at Chiang Mai University. “We will file an affidavit with the police after this. We’re willing to contest our charges in the legal process.” 

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Somchai Preechasilpakul, second from left, and other accused academics Tuesday at Chang Puak Police Station.

 

There was some confusion over how many people were charged with the offense. Col. Vachira Kanchanawipada, head of Chang Puak Police Station, said eight were charged, but activist group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported only five faced charges.

Vachira said today, Wednesday, that police are collecting information to bring charges against all eight academics in court. Two lecturers failed to report to police yesterday, he added. 

He declined to give further comment on the case.

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Somchai Preechasilpakul as history professor at Chiang Mai University. In fact he teaches law.

 

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