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THAILAND: Debate on Monarchy Tests Academic Freedom

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Apr 28 2011 (IPS) - History professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul has weathered a storm of insults since mid-December for doing the forbidden: he offered an alternative assessment of the most dominant institution in the country, its monarchy, in a forum at his university. Now military officials are dropping hints he could face more than just verbal attacks.

The 53-year-old academic told IPS he has received threatening phone calls at home, noticed “suspicious looking men on motorbikes,” and learned from well-placed officials that “preparations are being made to bring charges against me.”

Earlier this month, Somsak knew who army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha had in mind when he took a swipe at an academic daring to openly question the role of the country’s royal institution in the political landscape.

“In an interview dated April 7, the commander-in-chief attacked ‘a mentally ill academic’ who is ‘intent on overthrowing the institution’,” Somsak said to a packed seminar room at Thammasat University Sunday afternoon.

“I now feel threatened,” said Somsak who, prior to this, had managed to put up with attacks on his Facebook page – one ordering him to leave this South-east Asian kingdom, another declaring he should be in jail, and one more describing him as not being a “good Thai”.

Such attacks against Somsak are not surprising in a country that reveres the monarchy and protects its image through a draconian censorship law, hagiography in the local press and schoolbooks, and many public events venerating the royal family.

References here to the 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej enjoying a unique status are common. Similar reverence is extended to the other members of the royal family. And in their presence, many Thai citizens prostrate themselves on the floor.

Somsak clarified he had meant no disrespect. “I have never called for the overthrow of the monarchy,” he said. “My main message in all my writings and speeches is for the monarchy to change with the changing world and for people to have the freedom to discuss it.”

That was what the thin, slightly built and outspoken professor said in a speech on Dec. 10 at a panel discussion marking Thailand’s Constitution Day, which fell on the same day.

Academics supportive of Somsak, with a small but growing voice, have spelled out issues that had remained largely taboo subjects in the public space. Such a climate of silence has been shaped by the country’s draconian lese majeste law, which slaps a 15-year jail sentence for a single breach that would damage the image of the royal family.

In 2009, a record 164 lese majeste cases were accepted by Thai courts, according to information from the office of the judiciary seen by IPS. Among those in jail are a political activist and a website manager found guilty of comments deemed insulting to the monarchy, while an opposition politician and an academic have fled the country after being similarly charged.

Yet Somsak and his fellow academics have not been cowed by such a threatening reality, calling instead for an open discussion of the country’s most dominant institution. Their call touches on a need to review article 112 of the criminal code (which gives teeth to the lese majeste law); review the role of the privileged group of royal advisors called privy council; and review the ongoing public relations efforts and the “one-sided” education texts on the monarchy.

“These are the most sensitive issues to be discussed within an academic environment,” said Viengrat Nethipo, assistant professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “We always have had to restrict our discussions, censor ourselves, because we had to remain within the limits of the law.”

But the threats against Somsak and the attempts to arrest him will “only intensify the conflicts within Thai society,” she told IPS. “It is the role of academics to lead this discussion.”

The Thai academics’ open challenge to the royalists, the military and the conservative political establishment is already being described as an “unprecedented moment” by observers of Thai political culture.

“This systematic approach to criticising the Thai monarchy as an institution may be one of the first of its types in modern Thai history, as an effort to further strengthen democracy in Thailand,” said David Streckfuss, author of ‘Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lese-Majeste’.

“Somsak and his group are trying to locate the monarchy system to a position that it should have been in after the constitutional monarchy was created,” Streckfuss, a U.S. academic, explained to IPS. “They are challenging the laws that have been pushed through since 1947, that have allowed the monarchy to enjoy certain privileges that place it above criticism.”

Thailand, or Siam as it was known then, had an absolute monarchy till 1932, when it was overthrown by a clique of foreign-educated reformists. The constitutional monarchy followed, with the hope of giving rise to a Thai democracy.

Under this still struggling democracy, which had seen a string of military dictatorships and 18 successful coups launched by ambitious military leaders, the real gauge of academic freedom has often been the space to openly examine what is euphemistically called the “institution.”

In recent years, an academic at a Bangkok university had to deal with an order by government officials to release the answers scripts of his students after an examination he gave contained a question about the role of the monarchy in Thai democracy. And a prospective student was denied admission to a university after she was faulted for making a comment on the monarchy on a website.

Somsak and his group of academics also have a form of state scrutiny to contend with: An arm of the national security establishment has requested Thai universities to monitor the activities of this group, according to an informed source.

Yet that has not stopped a growing number of undergraduates from following this landmark moment. “I am glad that they are discussing these issues in the university,” said a law student from Thammasat University, who declined to be named for fear of retribution. “They are topics that we need to talk about in this academic way.”

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