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.

Sakchai Lalit/AP
A supporter of Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a Thammasat University historian, holds a sign protesting the Thai Criminal Code 112, which prohibits people from defaming the monarchy, at a police station, where police heard about an article Mr. Somsak wrote about a Thai royal family member, in Bangkok on Wednesday May 11.

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.

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.

David Streckfuss, author of "Truth on Trial in Thailand," a new study of the lèse-majesté law, said Somsak’s case could have a chilling effect on academic freedoms. Mr. Streckfuss's was among the signatures of the petition by 26 foreign scholars of Thailand in defense of Somsak.

“If charges are brought against him, it would really put a dent in Thailand’s image as a place where general freedoms are observed,” he says.

That image has already taken a pounding since a 2006 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and exposed deep rifts in Thai society. A subsequent election in 2007 led to a pro-Thaksin government that was toppled by royalist protests and a court-ordered dissolution. Last year, 92 people died during chaotic red-shirt street protests.

Compared with their more authoritarian neighbors, Thais are accustomed to heckling their leaders and voicing their demands, both on the street and in the media. But the monarchy has long been off limits for serious debate. Experts say this is a function of the repressive laws and the enduring popularity of King Bhumibol, the world’s longest reigning monarch. Royalists have sought to brand any criticism of the palace as an attack on Thai identity and a threat to national security.

For academics, this creates a “black hole” in the study of Thailand’s modern history, says Michael Montesano, a fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore. While some studies have simply echoed official hagiographies of the current ruler, others have resorted to coded language or bitten their tongues.

“In recent years, this caution has ebbed a bit. But Somsak has really pushed the envelope,” Mr. Montesano says.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took power in 2008, is seen as an ally of the palace and the military, which identifies strongly with the crown. He has defended the use of lèse-majesté laws to defend the monarchy and accused some elements of the red-shirt movement of having a republican agenda.

Mr. Abhisit, who was educated at Oxford University, has said that nonpartisan scholarship on the monarchy is permissible. Critics say the campaign of intimidation against Somsak flies in the face of this promise of free speech on campus.

Kevin Hewison, the director of the Carolina Asia Center at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, said Somsak’s case was a test for Abhisit. “He has stated several times that academic comment on the monarchy is acceptable. If it now isn't, [his] reputation will be in tatters for scholars who follow Thailand,” he wrote in an e-mail.

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