SOAS and the coup

New Mandala has received the following statement from Dr Patrick Jory who is based at the National University of Singapore. A full version of the statement, complete with detailed footnotes is available here: Jory statement on SOAS seminar.

A Statement of Concern Regarding SOAS’s Hosting of the Seminar, “Thailand under CEO Thaksin”, Scheduled for October 7, 2006.

On October 7 2006, only weeks after the royalist coup d’état dismissed the democratically elected government in Thailand, the Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia and the Islands and the Centre of South East Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) will hold a seminar titled, “Thailand under CEO Thaksin”. It will be the first seminar about Thailand staged at SOAS following the coup, and it is reported to have been rescheduled in response to the coup. Speakers will include the owner of the anti-Thaksin newspaper, The Manager, and leader of the “People’s Alliance for Democracy”, Sondhi Limthongkul; and another staunch critic of Thaksin, Senator Kraisak Choonhavan. Thailand’s The Nation newspaper reported that the seminar will be attended by a “Member of the Thai Royal Family”. Former PM Thaksin, who is currently in London apparently in exile, has not been invited, nor have any speakers representing the former government.

I wish to express my disappointment that an academic institution as internationally prominent in the study of Asian societies as SOAS has apparently allowed itself to be used in a politically partisan way by leaders of the anti-Thaksin political movement, only weeks after the objective of this movement has been achieved in the worst possible way, a coup d’état. At the very least, if the seminar is to be held in the spirit of free, rational inquiry and debate, one should ensure that there is a representative of the former government of similar standing to the other speakers in attendance at this seminar. I am concerned that SOAS is being used to lend its considerable intellectual authority to political supporters of the coup. This concern was heightened when I learnt that Mr. Sondhi – who since March has been calling on the King to dismiss Thaksin and appoint a new Prime Minster – has been promoting the seminar heavily on his cable TV station, ASTV.

In addition to the absence of representatives of the deposed government, as the Southeast Asia experts at SOAS must surely be aware, the attendance of a member of the Thai royal family at this seminar will ensure that any discussion by Thai participants in the seminar of the key role of the monarchy in legitimizing the coup d’état will be effectively (though subtly) forbidden. In Thailand criticism of the monarchy under the lèse majesté law is punishable with up to 15 years in prison, and has in fact been a violation of the many versions of the Constitution since 1932. The key to understanding the crisis in Thailand since late last year is the conflict between the Thaksin government and the monarchy, yet in Thailand debate about the monarchy’s political role is almost impossible. An issue of an academic journal devoted to a discussion of the monarchy has been banned and the editor formally charged with the offense of lèse majesté. A popular academic website that hosted a lively discussion of the monarchy was closed down by its internet service provider. A controversial book on the monarchy by a foreign journalist has also been banned and access to the page advertising the book on the Yale University Press and Amazon websites has been blocked. While former Prime Minister Thaksin was criticised relentlessly by the print media and academics over the past year, no such discussion has been possible about the monarchy’s role, despite its political interventions in the democratic process on numerous occasions this year.

The coup group, calling itself (in Thai) the “Council for Democratic Reform with the Great King as Head of State”, has also appealed to the foreign media to avoid any association of the monarchy with the coup. Yet one of the main topics for discussion on Thai websites is the role of the Chairman of the Privy Council and the King’s closest advisor, Gen. Prem Tinasulanond, in approving, if not instigating the coup. Today (30 September) a member of the King’s Privy Council and a former Army Commander, Gen. Surayudh Chulanond, has been appointed Prime Minister. If SOAS intends to host a seminar assessing the rule of former Prime Minister Thaksin then in the interests of intellectual freedom there should be a fully free discussion of the role of forces close to the monarchy in destabilizing his government over the past year and indeed in carrying out the coup. This will not be the possible if the discussion is effectively censored by the presence of a member of the royal family.

As I write this letter, one of the best-known forums for academic discussion about the coup, Midnight University, has been blocked by the Thai Information Communications Ministry. Other web-boards are practicing a high degree of self-censorship (although on many of these websites there is great anger at the coup and the coup plotters). The mass media is fully controlled by the military junta. Four members of the Cabinet remain under arrest. Officers in the Armed Forces and the Police Forces appointed by the former democratically elected government are being purged and replaced by officers loyal to the coup group. Activities by political parties are forbidden.

The fact that the coup was carried out less than two months before planned national elections was precisely because the coup group refused to allow the Thai people decide their political future by choosing their own government. In hosting this seminar I am concerned that SOAS may be seen to be giving moral and intellectual legitimacy to the same forces that support this disenfranchising of the Thai people, because the effect of the seminar, produced by its theme, its invited speakers, and the presence of a member of the Thai royal family, will be to discredit the Thaksin government in order to justify the coup. At the very moment when criticism of the coup makers is heavily censored in Thailand, it is extremely disappointing that an institution of the standing of SOAS appears to be willing to hold a one-sided seminar that will give international academic recognition to two of the strongest supporters of the undemocratic overthrow of the Thaksin government.

Dr. Patrick Jory
Visiting Research Fellow
Asia Research Institute
National University of Singapore

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