No passion at ICTS11

The Thai Studies conferences are academic gatherings of international Thai Scholars held every three years. The 10th was held at Thammasat University in 2008.

This year’s Conference, sponsored by Mahidol University and attended by 700+ academics from dozens of countries, for this reviewer, saw the ethereal world of Thai studies to be a cold and airless realm.

The 89 sessions convened 342 panels presenting research into Thai history, ethnography, linguistics, sociology, anthropology, architecture and numerous other academic disciplines. However, the Conference seemed to this reviewer to be much like a gathering of collectors of antique music boxes or paperweights constantly examining their minutiae rather than creating new ones.

Thai scholars have chosen Thailand as their career path. I cannot imagine anyone choosing such a career without passion for Thailand. Yet this Conference was nearly bloodless.

Numerous international Thai scholars boycotted the Conference, perhaps most notably the Australian contingent at New Mandala. This was done partly in protest against Thai government’s draconian prosecutions of academic freedom and free expression and a very real possibility that Thai govt might arrest them while here for reportage or opinions expressed abroad.

The result was a conference devoid of controversy. There was precious little conviviality and (heavens!) certainly no conspiracy among participants. There were no heated discussions or solidarity. None of these scholars even appears to drink wine, or at least invited me!

Yes, of course, there were panels on Redshirts, Preah Vihear and even lèse majesté. While interesting, they lacked deep feeling or understanding.

We academics have chosen to be educators, I hope, because we think we can make a difference in the world. The lack of strong emotion here was most disappointing.

In contrast to the 2008 Thammasat conference where several panels on lèse majesté and the monarchy gathered the greatest attendance and were well attended by Thai police, there was scant discussion or interest in academic freedom and censorship this year.

Was the difference this year the Conference sponsors; is Mahidol more conservative academically than Thammasat? Or was there less energy at a hotel venue rather than a university? The sad truth was the high points to look forward to were the vegetarian lunches.

I commandeered a display table for FACT swag the first morning and made sure FACT stickers were available to all Conference attendees. FACT also had buttons and tee-shirts available by donation.

FACT’s table went largely unmanned as I attended presentations. However, only a handful of participants even talked to me about FACT or rampant Thai govt censorship.

Although there were a few FACT signers participating, not one new person signed FACT’s online petition and not one person signed our petition in support of Bradley Manning, accused WiliLeaks whistleblower.

We sold no buttons and the singular scholar who took a FACT tee-shirt never came back to pay for it. (You know who you are!)

The sole redeeming panel was the final one, Perspectives on the Current Crisis in Thailand”, chaired by SUNY academic Dr. Peter F. Bell. Panelists included Redshirt linguist Dr. Suda Rangkupan on social media and Red women, Thammasat University economist Dr. Pichit Likitkijsomboon on class struggle, and the Chulalongkorn University academic infamously accused of lèse majesté on the Thai military’s ‘lom chao’ conspiracy chart, historian Dr. Suthachai Yimprasert.

Finally, an academic had the courage to point out 33 lèse majesté cases in 2005 has grown to 476 in 2010. Ajarn Suthachai pointed out, “All 112 victims are innocent. Not some, all.”

Suthachai pointed out that Thai revolutionist Pridi Banomyong was the first modern victim of lèse majesté and that three innocent Royal servants were executed for the regicide of King Ananda. He had the courage to name them: Chit Singhaseni, Bhut Pathamasarin and Chaleo Pathumros.

The review above should not be viewed as any personal sour-grapes attitude on my part. These are merely observations as I saw things.

An ‘alternative’ Thai studies conference took place this month in Melbourne. I think it would be a great loss to divide the international Thai academic community into those of us who are social activists and those who are not. Perhaps there is some uncomfortable truth that such conferences in English make us all cultural imperialists. In any case, the 12th ICTS will take place in Sydney.

Thailand is such a wonderful place. But at least these particular Thai scholars seem to have lost the wonder that brought us here.

We’re sure these fine academics have opinions and feelings. They must speak up if Thailand, the place we love and honour, is to evolve into democracy.

About C. J. Hinke, Guest Contributor