Police watch Thai Studies Conference

January 13, 2008

The 10th triennial Thai Studies Conference, held at Thammasat University January 9-11, was themed “Thai Studies in a Tranationalized World”. 619 academics from dozens of countries attended 105 panels, including a keynote speech by HRH Princess Mahachakri Sirindhorn, over the three days.

More than 100 FACT signers were among the Conference participants as well as making up the core of several panels so it was an excellent opportunity to plan and network against censorship. FACT stickers and CD-ROMs, “Beat the Censors–Unblock ICT!” were made available for free throughout the Conference. There was much fruitful discussion about censorship versus academic freedom, banned books, Internet blocking, film censorship and our role and responsibilities as academics, scholars and intellectuals for fighting censorship to enable freedom of information  and knowledge within the greater society.

Book sale tables dominated the entrance to TU’s Dome Building including recently-censored Same Sky Books (Fah Diew Kan). FACT t-shirts were for sale at the Fah Diew Kan table.

Some panels related specifically to the issue of censorship in Thailand. “Truth, the Unreal and Censorship” concerned itself with film censorship and FACT signer Chalida Uabumrungjit, director of the Free Thai Cinema Movement and Thai Film Foundation was one of the panellists.

“Free Media and the Democratization of Mass Communications” was chaired by FACT signer Dr. Ubonrat Siriyuvasak of Chulalongkorn University and its panellists included FACT signer Dr. Pirongrong Ramasoota Rananand, Dean of Chula’s Journalism Department and former FACT coordinator, media activist Supinya Klangnarong, chair of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform and a lecturer at Mahidol University. Perhaps the most memorable quote from this panel was Ajarn Pirongrong: “Free speech is speechless in Thailand.”

For the first time, panels were held discussing the Thai monarchy, a topic which has been firmly rejected when proposed to previous Conferences. Many Thai and foreign journalists were in attendance.

The three panels were grouped into “The Monarchy, Lese Majeste, and One Book”, organised by FACT signer Dr. Thongchai Winichakul of the University of Wisconsin and had indisputably the highest numbers of participants..

The first session, titled “The Accessories of the Monarchy as an Institution” included a fascinating, if circumspect by necessity, examination of the Crown Property Bureau after the 1997 economic crisis by Dr. Porphant Ouyyanont of Sukhothai Thammathirat University; a look at the cult following of Thai citizens venerating the fifth Chakri king, King Chulalongkorn, and Thailand’s present monarch by Dr. Irene Stengs of the Meertens Institute in The Netherlands; and a paper written by Paul Handley, author of The King Never Smiles on the development of the Privy Council to the modern day. Of course, Mr. Handley is persona non grata in Thailand due to accusations of lese majeste which led to the banning of his book in Thailand  before its publication and his paper was read by the chair.

Special Branch officers of the Royal Thai Police requested attendance from the Conference organisers and this panel was the first one they attended. Perhaps they thought they might catch Paul Handley!

The second panel in the monarchy series concerned “The Lese Majeste Law: How It Works and How It Fails”. Its first paper by Dr. Somchai Preechasilpakul of Chiangmai University and Dr. David Streckfuss of the University of Wisconsin concerned the misuse and abuse of the law and gave consideration to its abolition by comparison to similar laws in other monarchies.

FACT signer and reporter for The Nation, Pravit Rojanaphruk then discussed “Lese Majeste Law and the Thai Print Media” in the context of the Rodolf Jufer case last year. Using this case as a springboard, discussion was generated about Thai culture of self-censorship, patriotism and the taboo for any public critical discussion of the monarchy. Khun Pravit mentioned that his editors had put pressure on him even several days previously for writing about the closing of Fah Diew Kan’s website over alleged lese majeste.

The final panel, “Critical Comments on Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles”, chaired by Dr. Michael Herzfeld of Harvard University, was far and away the best-attended panel of the entire Conference. 350-400 people were accommodated in one lecture hall, a separate room, the hallway, the stairs and another lecture hall upstairs to which the panel was televised. At least three Special Branch police officers were also in attendance.

FACT signer and Midnight University founder, Dr. Nithi Eoseewong, discussed the impact of the book on Thai society as the first biography of King Bhumiphol to be published. FACT signer Dr. Craig Reynolds of the Australian National University spoke about the book’s critical intellectual commentary. Dr. Annette Hamilton of the University of New South Wales commented that freedom of speech does not deny loyalty and love for the King. Only Dr. Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian of Malaysia’s Universiti Perguruan Sultan Idris seemed restrained in the lively discussion and many questions from the floor.

The book, its successes and failings, were critically examined during this panel. It is undeniable that The King Never Smiles is a valuable contribution to scholarship on Thailand and opens up a field of enquiry long closed by law and by social convention.

It is at least partly due to the book’s publication that panels on the monarchy were held during the Thai Studies Conference. Perhaps discussion of this vital part of Thai life will be expanded during the next Conference three years from now, to be held at Mahidol University.

The real question is, why have a police presence at an academic conference. The Conference is hardly a hotbed of revolution and includes distinguished academics from around the world. Did they expect us to be intimidated? Did the police find what they were looking for?

                                                        CJ Hinke / Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT)


One Response to “Police watch Thai Studies Conference”

  1. saraburian Says:

    I don’t think Kobkua was the only one at the Monarchy session that seemed restrained in the discussion. In fact it was Nithi who was more restrained. He did not even finished his speech nor did he respond to any questions. Kobkua at least finished her part as well as responded, albeit half-heartedly to several questions/comments.

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