Charge Against Professor Raises Questions About Academic Freedom in Thailand

Chaiwat Subprasom, Reuters, Landov

Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a history professor at Thammasat U., greeted supporters after he was charged with violating a law that prohibits insulting members of the Thai monarchy.
June 01, 2011

Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a 53-year-old history professor at Bangkok's elite Thammasat University, believes that Thailand's monarchy should be reformed. He says the revered institution should be made more open, showing, for example, its financial books to the public. He also recently questioned what he called the political leanings of a princess. He does not call for the monarchy to be abolished but would like to see it modernized.

While an outspoken academic like Mr. Somsak would elsewhere be entitled to publish his scholarly writings and be shielded by notions of academic freedom, it is a different story altogether in his native Thailand. Here, a strict law designed to protect the royal family from offense means that he has come under criticism from the army, which is charged with protecting the country's highest institution.

Mr. Somsak is now charged with violating a century-old law, known by the French term lèse-majesté, which forbids insulting the 83-year-old king and members of the royal family. If found guilty, the scholar could go to prison for up to 15 years. He proclaims his innocence and says that "in other countries the case would have been dismissed from the start."

Mr. Somsak says the law is used to intimidate those who oppose the establishment, and that he has been personally threatened. "It makes me more cautious. I never imaged this would happen," he says. He believes the chief of the army has singled him out and says he has received mysterious phone calls and has been monitored by men lurking outside his house.

Academics say the lèse-majesté law stifles political debate, and at least one scholar abroad says he has faced pressure from the Thai government to avoid such sensitive issues.

Critics argue that the law is used to silence those who oppose the country's monarchy and military, and that it serves as a tool to settle political grudges.

But others maintain that the law is necessary to protect the king, who is thought of as the country's moral compass; many Thais even consider him to be semidivine. Public discussion of the monarchy is taboo in Thailand, and even discussing the existence of the lèse-majesté law itself is often considered out of bounds.

The charge against Mr. Somsak comes in the midst of a severe political crisis in Thailand. The king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has been in the hospital since September 2009 to treat various ailments. Last year's bloody antigovernment protests, which pitted supporters of an ousted prime minister against the royalist government, left more than 90 people dead and thousands wounded. New elections are set to take place on July 3, and analysts predict more unrest.

Increase in Cases

This is not the first time the lèse-majesté law has been used against academics and writers. In 2008, Harry Nicolaides, an Australian novelist, was arrested in Thailand and charged because a passage in his self-published novel, of which only a handful of copies were sold, was deemed offensive to the crown prince. Mr. Nicolaides served six months in prison before being pardoned and returning to Australia.

In addition, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Thai-British scholar who was a political-science professor at Bangkok's prestigious Chulalongkorn University, was charged with lèse-majesté after he wrote a book purportedly critical of the 2006 coup and the monarchy. He fled the country in 2009.

Most recently, in late May, a Thai-born U.S. citizen who calls himself Joe Gordon was arrested here, charged with posting translations from an unauthorized biography of the Thai king that is banned. The book, written by the journalist Paul Handley, was published by Yale University Press in 2006; the Thai government subsequently blocked the university's Web site.

Officials from Thailand's Office of the Higher Education Commission, part of the country's ministry of education, declined to comment on Mr. Somsak's case or on the general issue of academic freedom in the country.

David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based American academic who last year published Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-Majesté, says that there has been a "huge increase" in the number of lèse-majesté cases filed since the 2006 coup. He notes that between 1990 and 2005 there were an average of four or five such cases per year, but that the number skyrocketed to 397, or nearly 100 per year, between 2006 and 2009.

The law has a chilling effect on speech, but the Somsak case may also be causing a backlash of sorts. "There's both more indiscriminate use of the law and at the same time a greater boldness," he says. "People are pushing the line."

'Newfound Boldness'

In the last six months, Mr. Streckfuss says, several vocal groups like the 112 Awareness Campaign, which is named for the article of the criminal code that pertains to lèse-majesté, have formed to point out what they say are the law's abuses. "Thai academics are stepping up, and yet when they do, it's always at a risk," Mr. Streckfuss says. "There's a new generation of activists who are not willing to back down," he says. "There's a newfound boldness that has the promise of opening up formerly academic issues to greater Thai society."

Andrew Walker, a Thailand expert and senior fellow at the Australian National University's School of International, Political & Strategic Studies, says that while there has recently been "considerable public discussion" of the lèse-majesté law among people in Thailand, there has not been a "significant international backlash" against the law. Rather, there is "persistent caution in the international academic community" because scholars do not want to endanger their access to Thailand, he says.

Mr. Walker and a colleague founded New Mandala, a popular Australia-based blog about Southeast Asian studies in 2006, and some postings there have examined Thailand's monarchy in a critical manner. Authorities at the Thai Embassy in Canberra have taken note, Mr. Walker says. "It's been made quite clear that I wouldn't be welcome in Thailand," he says. He has not visited the country in three years.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow and lead researcher at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies who writes about Thai politics, says he believes Mr. Walker's experience is not unique. "I think these things are happening all over the world," he says.

Meanwhile, a separate group of Thai-studies scholars located abroad recently circulated an open letter calling for an end to what they call threats and intimidation. A statement called Mr. Somsak's case the "latest signal of the worsening atmosphere of freedom of expression in Thailand." The document has been signed by 51 people, including some affiliated with the Universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and of Cambridge, Cornell and Harvard Universities, and others.

One of the academics who signed the letter is Tyrell Haberkorn, a Thailand expert and research fellow in the department of political and social change at the Australian National University's School of International, Political & Strategic Studies. Foreign academics "feel increasingly uneasy" with the lèse-majesté law, she said via e-mail. Still, she adds, "there is more dissidence and progressive protest" in Thailand "than there has been in recent years."


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