More than a hundred scholars and academics have signed an open letter accusing the National University of Singapore (NUS) Press of bowing to political pressure after it last year withdrew abruptly from publication of a volume of essays touching on sensitive aspects of Thai politics.
The book, “Coup, King, Crisis: A Critical Interregnum in Thailand,” was edited by the scholar Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a long-time critic of the Thai ruling establishment who has been living in exile in Japan since shortly after the military coup of May 2014.
The essays in the book, which has since been published as part of Yale University’s Southeast Asia Studies Monograph series, cast a critical eye on the period between the coup and the flawed election of March 2019. In particularly, it examines the sensitive royal transition from King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016 after 70 years on the throne, to his son Vajiralongkorn – an issue that can’t be openly discussed within Thailand due to the country’s harsh lese-majeste law.
Pavin, who composed the open letter, claims that he proposed the manuscript to NUS Press in October 2018 and went through what he describes as a “proper and vigorous peer review process.” But in March 2020, as the volume was being prepped for publication, he says that Peter Schoppert, director of the NUS Press, informed him in an email that the book would not be published.
“This is not the sort of decision a university press takes lightly,” he wrote, “but it was taken after consultation with stakeholders within and outside the university community” – an explanation that is Pavin says it is “reasonable to assume” refers to political pressure.
“The unexplained and last-minute decision violates the fundamental principles of academic freedom,” wrote Pavin, who now teaches at Kyoto University. “The reference to outside stakeholders indicates that individuals and/or interest groups outside of academia have the final say in the publication process. This makes a mockery of the independent peer-review process, calling into question the academic integrity of the press itself.” He added that the decision on the part of the NUS Press to drop the project revealed the university’s “knowing sacrifice of legitimacy for expediency.”
The open letter, which calls on scholars to pause all further manuscript reviewing for and submission to NUS Press, was signed by more than 100 writers and academics. Among the most prominent were Thongchai Winichakul of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Charnvit Kasetsiri of Thammasat University, and James C. Scott of Yale. It also includes the journalist Paul Handley, the author of “The King Never Smiles,” a path-breaking biography of King Bhumibol that has been banned in Thailand since its release in 2006. (Full disclosure: I am also among the signatories of the letter.)
This case would be unsurprising, if no less regrettable, had it been a Thai publishing house that had refused to publish the book. But for this to happen in Singapore, where university presses have generally been willing to support and publish critical and politically sensitive scholarship on Southeast Asia (if not always on Singapore itself), suggests that a threshold has been crossed – even it remains unclear exactly which “stakeholders” urged NUS Press to halt publication of “Coup, King, Crisis.” Indeed, a group of “concerned scholars of Southeast Asian studies,” have since established a petition on change.org that is seeking more details about exactly where the pressure came from.
The allegations come at a sensitive time in Thai politics. Last year saw the emergence of a youth-dominated protest movement which, in addition to calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the passage of democratic reforms, has openly assailed the wealth and power of the Thai monarchy.
The country’s ruling establishment has fought back by dusting off its controversial lese-majeste law in order to quash the movement. On January 19, a former civil servant was sentenced to a record 87 years in prison for sharing audio clips critical of the monarchy. Although her guilty plea has reduced the sentence by half, it remains the highest sentence under the draconian law. At least 40 other young people currently stand accused of lese-majeste, including several prominent student leaders, a well-known actress who supported the protests, and a 16-year-old schoolboy.
While there is no binding proof, the withdrawal of the book from publication suggests the increasing attempts of the Thai government to quash, directly or otherwise, any critical commentary on Thailand’s ruling establishment – at a time when searching examinations of Thai politics have rarely been more pressing.