Academics Lead Today’s Junta Resistance, But to Any Effect?

A joint statement calling for academic freedom, freedom of expression and returning power to the people is read July 17 at the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies in Chiang Mai. Photo: Thai Lawyers for Human Rights / Facebook

BANGKOK — Three years on, those most challenging military rule have been the nation’s academics and intellectuals.

This is partly due to the fact academics are respected, better known than ordinary citizens and enjoy a historical role in countering totalitarianism, according to those involved. But resistance led from the ivory tower has a pro-democracy activist convinced they steal the spotlight and exclude the masses from playing a vital role in favor of what an exiled former academic describes as an impotent movement.

July 17 saw academics test the waters again when they met in Chiang Mai for an annual conference. The 176 Thai and foreign scholars at the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies jointly signed a declaration calling for academic freedom, free expression and a swift return of sovereignty to the people.

“We view the suppression of free thought in Thai society to be of concern because it will result in the deterioration of knowledge, as it renders the people unable to access the truth and search for information to move forward,” a passage in the declaration read.

Pakavadi Veerapasapong makes three-finger salutes associated with opposing the military regime at an academic forum before a banner asserting the event 'is not a military barracks' earlier this month in Chiang Mai. Photo: Pakavadi Veerapasapong / Facebook
Pakavadi Veerapasapong makes three-finger salutes associated with opposing the military regime at an academic forum before a banner asserting the event ‘is not a military barracks’ earlier this month in Chiang Mai. Photo: Pakavadi Veerapasapong / Facebook

The conference attracted more attention when someone unhappy with intrusive security forces unfurled a banner asserting their “academic forum is not a military barracks,” images of which spread on social media. That led a Chiang Mai deputy governor to write a letter suggesting three people seen in one of the photos be brought in for questioning by the military.

Catching Fire

One of the three he identified was writer and translator Pakavadi Veerapasapong. The 52-year-old Chiang Mai writer was a panelist at the conference. She said they devised the motto after plainclothes soldiers and police kept intruding into and monitoring various panel discussions there. Since the soldiers generally couldn’t understand English, they monopolized use of the few interpretation machines which had been made available.

“It was such a nuisance and unsettling,” Pakavadi said, speaking from the northern province. She recognized some of the men and could identify others from how they were dressed or just recognized them as regular interlopers at talks and seminars in Chiang Mai. She added that while others carried passes, these soldiers walked around without identification.

“The problem is that these plainclothes soldiers kept taking photos and using the [interpretation] headphones. The organizers had provided [participants] with interpreters, and there weren’t that many devices available,” Pakavadi said.

The soldiers allegedly took the devices despite neither paying the registration fee to attend the event – causing shortages for participants who needed the machines.

“What’s bothersome is that sometimes these people can’t even understand [academic] Thai language. They have no knowledge of humanities or anything academic. Sometimes they asked academics to summarize things for them so they can write a report [to their commander],” the academic added.

Asked if well-known thinkers and prominent academics get more mass media coverage and outshine ordinary activists, Pakavadi, who belongs to the 400-strong Thai Academic Network for Civil Rights, said they often do. However, she said the academics are more organized, and the junta seems less tolerant of ordinary dissenters.

“When they deal with ordinary folks, it tends to be harsher. They don’t have a protective shield, so they don’t want to take risks,” she said, referring to being shielded from worse treatment by universities or their status. “But academics can only do so much. They can’t even protect academic freedom.”

Pakavadi said she wishes more could unite to fight against dictatorship.

“Maybe we have to wait until we reach the point where people feet enough is enough and take to the streets,” she said.

Or Sucking Up Oxygen?

Pansak Srithep, a member of a pro-democracy group that has staged street protests, said graduating from college doesn’t make him an intellectual. And his primary affiliation isn’t with the group, Resistant Citizen, but the Bang Bua Thong Taxi Cooperative in northwest metro Bangkok.

Pansak, who drives a taxi, is known for bold and direct protests. He criticized some prominent academics who took fellowships or sabbaticals at foreign universities to get out of Thailand following the 2014 coup.

“They simply vanished. Some could be described as half-fleeing. Now that they are back, we’re back to the same cycle in which ordinary victims of junta persecution are treated like a case study,” he said.

Pansak Srithep in an image posted to his Facebook account.

Pansak – who face charges including sedition for holding public protests against the junta – added that ordinary citizens have to push harder for media recognition. It was the killing of his teen son by an unidentified gunman during 2010 Redshirt protests and his subsequent calls for justice that made him a known face in the media, despite his non-academic status.

Not only is it harder for ordinary citizens to be be noticed, but once persecuted by the National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta calls itself, they are quickly forgotten by the media and the public while their court cases drag on for years.

When they are invited to join a panel critical of the regime, regular citizens tend to be presented as token speakers or cases to be studied by academics, Pansak said.

“Organizing a panel is what academics are comfortable with. Even at academic forums, there exist hierarchies among them as to who will get to speak,” he said, saying some star academics get to speak the most speaking time. “For ordinary folks who want to speak out, if they’re not really good, they won’t have any space. Academics should support them and not speak on their behalf.”

However, Pansak said he doesn’t think academics and intellectuals intend to really steal the limelight. He believes it’s a problem of two groups being unable to work in tandem with one another. “They want to maintain academic impartiality, which doesn’t exist anyhow.”

Fulfilling ‘Historical Mission’ or ‘Limp and Meaningless?’

Anusorn Unno, coordinator of the civil rights network, can speak at length about what is wrong under military rule. He led the reading of the declaration at last week’s conference in Thai and English.

“We don’t have the power to make the state obey. However, in a situation where people are being muzzled, we do speak,” said Anusorn, 45, an anthropologist and dean of Thammasat University’s Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology. He said Thailand is facing an attempt to reverse the political progress the kingdom made since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Concerned academics, both here and abroad, both Thai and foreign, are simply trying to resist, he added.

“Thailand has this [historical] specificity wherein academics and intellectuals are expected to deliver,” Anusorn said, referring to political struggles spearheaded by students, academics and intellectuals dating back at least to the October 1973 popular revolt which ousted the regime of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. Since then, Anusorn said, it has been a “mission” for concerned academics and intellectuals to maintain this role.

“It’s like we have a shield protecting us more than ordinary folks. This demands that one exercise bravery even more. Ordinary folks don’t have any shield. So we need to fulfill our mission. It’s not like whatever academics say is correct or that we have a privilege while others can’t speak,” Anusorn said.

The domination of academics is such that even the strongest criticism against the declaration didn’t come from the military junta but from a former anti-junta peer. While junta secretary and Army Chief Gen. Chalermchai Sittisart insisted July 20 that Pakavadi and her colleagues would not be called in for questioning – but merely asked not to disturb the peace and order until the big royal events at the end of the year are complete, an exiled political scientist launched into strong criticism of his fellows, particularly the foreign scholars who signed or did not sign the declaration.

The declaration was “limp and meaningless,” wrote political scientist Giles Ji Ungpakorn, who lives in England to avoid prosecution on charges of defaming the monarchy.

“A much more powerful message to the junta would have been the total boycott of such a conference held in Thailand,” Giles wrote Sunday on his blog. “They could have organized an alternative conference outside the country and purposely invited those Thai academics in exile to speak, all expenses paid.”

“I say ‘all expenses paid’ because many of the exiled Thai academics in Europe and elsewhere, who are on the junta’s ‘wanted list,’ have had to give up their academic jobs and now survive on low incomes,” added Giles, who taught at Chulalongkorn University before he fled to evade what he says is persecution.

Giles wrote that foreign academics who attended the conference and spoke helped legitimize the junta and were due for particular criticism.

“The bottom line is that there is no such thing as academic freedom in Thailand today. The exception is the select few privileged foreign academics who haunt the Thai Studies conferences, making sure that they don’t upset the people who are in power,” Giles wrote. “For these pathetic people, their careers and visas to visit Thailand are more important than freedom, democracy and human rights among the very people they claim to study.”

Prachatai video of the statement read July 14 at the Chiang Mai conference.