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Why Is Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University Afraid of Academic Freedom?

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Why Is Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University Afraid of Academic Freedom?

At many Thai universities, academic freedom does not extend to searching criticisms of the political and economic status quo.

Why Is Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University Afraid of Academic Freedom?

A view of the main campus of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.

Credit: Depositphotos

In one or two weeks, if nothing changes, I will no more be the president of Chulalongkorn University’s Student Union. Once again, the university considers my actions and opinions to be too controversial, too heterodox, too provocative. Once again, the university shows that it is afraid of academic freedom.

I have been targeted for organizing an online orientation event for freshmen that included appearances from Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Rung Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, two prominent student activists from Thammasat University, and Professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun from Kyoto University, who is in exile because of his scholarship.

On July 21, the Office for Student Affairs posted a statement condemning the Student Union’s actions, saying that inviting these speakers, who are accused of breaking Thailand’s severe lese majeste laws, was improper, and that the university would consider punishing me.

On July 28, an online mini-concert for freshmen should have taken place, but one day before, Professor Chaiyaporn Puprasert, the vice president for student affairs, issued a letter refusing approval for the event. The event was scheduled to take place on the king’s birthday, which his office deemed inappropriate.

The university has also sought to censor the student handbook edited by the Union, which includes articles discussing feminism, civil disobedience, LGBTQIA+ issues, freedom of expression, protests and state violence, the historic role of student activists, and self-care. On July 29, the Office for Student Affairs said in a statement that the handbook’s content was “incorrect,” “inappropriate,” and still not recognized by the university.

In the meantime, alumni of Chulalongkorn University have founded an association, the Chulalongkorn University Defense Committee, to press the university’s administration to punish me.

On August 4,  Puprasert announced that disciplinary action would probably be taken against me for inviting speakers who are said to have talked and behaved in “inappropriate” ways and for having published a “heterodox” student handbook.

Faculty and staff who work under Puprasert will preside over the disciplinary committee, making the process procedurally unfair and the outcome predictable. I will most likely lose 10 “behavior points,” which will lead to my impeachment from the position of president of the Student Union.

Alas, what has been happening in the last three weeks is not something new in my path as an activist and student at Chulalongkorn University.

In 2017, I became the president of the University’s Student Council, the first sophomore to hold this position and the president whose term was the shortest lived: my tenure lasted three months, because seven students and I walked out of the university’s oath-taking ceremony, in which students must prostrate before a statue of King Chulalongkorn, to express our disagreement with the existence of such a ritual. During the event, my friend Suphalak Bumroongkit, the deputy president of the Student Council, was put in a headlock by one of the university’s lecturers, who, despite the incident, was not fired and did not resign from his position at the Office for Student Affairs.

As a result, my behavior points were reduced, and I was impeached from holding any other position at the university again. Despite an international outcry, the university did not step back, and my friends and I had to resort to legal action. In 2019, Thailand’s Central Administrative Court reduced the penalty against us, and I was allowed to become a candidate again.

In 2020, I won the elections for the Presidency of the Student Union of the Department of Political Science, and in March 2021, I was elected with 70 percent of the vote to serve as the President of the University’s Student Union. Now, once again, the university is threatening to impeach me.

In the face of this pressure, our demands are clear. We want the charges against us to be dropped. The accusations basically rely on the fact that we have created a space for students to express their opinions about the current regime and the social status quo in Thailand.

The criticism directed against the student handbook is, as the Editorial Department of the Student Union has argued, an effort to interfere with the freedom of the press. We ask the university to apologize for threatening to censor our ideas and for attacking our freedom of expression.

We demand the creation of institutional channels through which the Union could regularly exchange views with the administration, such as monthly meetings. We also want a means for the administration to regularly interact with the student body (such as town hall meetings, now possible online as well), and for students to freely exchange among ourselves on social and political matters.

More generally, we expect our university to be a space in which rational thinking, and not monocratic orders, reigns; a space in which critical dialogue replaces conventional wisdom and undemocratic norms.

The relationship between academic and political freedom is intimate. For decades, students have been at the forefront of the struggle for democracy and democratization in Thailand. Chulalongkorn University knows this. The monarchy knows this. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha knows this. That is why they are so afraid of letting academic freedom have free rein.

Universities must be a fort of freedom. They must contribute to the formation of citizens who are engaged in the building of a democratic society. They must be, in this respect, more critical of the current political situation in Thailand. They must condemn the widespread crackdown and police violence against student activists like Penguin, who is in jail once again not because he has been considered guilty after due process but because he is an outspoken critic of the Thai government and has actively organized and participated in pro-democracy demonstrations. Chulalongkorn cannot choose silence over dialogue, punishment over freedom.

One may think that Thailand is an exception and that one should not care about what is happening at an unknown university in a small Asian country. But as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once argued, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Academic freedom is increasingly at risk, everywhere. And here, in Thailand, and now, we need all the help foreign scholars can provide to support our struggle for freedom.