Academic freedom under fire in royalist Thailand
A history professor in Thailand says Thailand is about to press criminal charges for calling for an end to the monarchy. He's the latest public figure to be accused of violating Thailand's strict lèse-majesté laws.
An outspoken historian is facing the threat of a criminal trial for his writings on the Thai monarchy, spurring an international appeal by scholars for the protection of academic freedoms in Thailand.Skip to next paragraph
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Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a history professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok, has accused the Thai military of forcing the government to prosecute him under a century-old royal defamation law. He said that he had received an anonymous phone call that said he would be arrested soon.
Mr. Somsak is the latest public figure to be accused of lèse-majesté, a crime that carries a potential 15-year jail term. Dozens of cases are pending against politicians, activists, and journalists accused of defaming King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the constitutional ruler, and his family, who are typically shielded from public scrutiny.
Thailand is far from the only country that jealously guards the reputation of its heroes. A new US-published biography of Gandhi that touched on his sexuality met an angry reaction in India. In recent years, Russian scholars writing critically on Stalin have faced similar constraints.
Watchdog groups say Thailand’s widespread use of repressive laws such as lèse-majesté to silence critics has undermined its democratic rights. US-based Freedom House recently ranked Thailand with dictatorships like China and Cuba for its “substantial censorship” of political debate. Thai authorities continue to shut down media outlets allied to the opposition “red-shirt” movement. Armed police raided several red-shirt radio stations on April 26 for airing antiroyal speeches.
Somsak is among a group of intellectuals who have called for root-and-branch reform of the monarchy to diminish its political influence. He has described the threats against him as retaliation for his proposals, which he said were based on democratic principles. “If I cannot speak my mind, I should not be an academic,” he said in December.
A Thai professor allied to the group, who requested anonymity, said Somsak had taken a deliberate risk by challenging royal privileges. “He intentionally crossed a line…. He wants this [issue] to be part of the political discussion,” he says.
Somsak, a former leftist activist, didn’t respond to an interview request. A friend said he was keeping a low profile. On April 24, he told supporters that he would defend himself in court and wouldn’t try to leave the country. In Feburary 2009, another outspoken academic, Giles Ungpakorn, fled to Britain to escape a similar lèse-majesté charge.