On February 23, 2015, Professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a historian at Thammasat University who went into political exile following the Thai military junta’s assumption of power in May 2014, was dismissed from his position on the ground that he had not reported for duty in more than 15 days.
Professor Somsak, a vocal critic of the military junta, was charged in 2011 with violating Thailand’s lèse majesté laws, which prohibit insulting or defaming the royal family. In February 2014, gunshots were reportedly fired at Professor Somsak’s house and car. The following May, after the military took control of Thailand, Professor Somsak fled the country, reportedly fearing for his life. In connection with the lèse majesté charge, he was subsequently summoned, along with other Thai academics and intellectuals, to report to military authorities; when he did not appear, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Professor Somsak submitted a resignation letter to the University in December 2014, but it was not accepted by the university. Instead, the university instituted disciplinary action against Professor Somsak and ultimately terminated him, reportedly resulting in a loss of his pension and significant financial losses.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about dismissal and other professional retaliation against a scholar in exile as a result of attempts to prosecute him for nonviolent, expressive activity. State authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with academic freedom or expressive activity, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Likewise, university authorities have a responsibility to refrain from engaging in acts of professional retaliation that compound the harm arising from prosecutions for non-violent academic or expressive activity. Prosecution and retaliatory discharge aimed at limiting such expressive activity harms academic freedom and democratic society generally.
Professor Somsak appealed his dismissal before the Thai Education Ministry’s Office of the Higher Education Commission in March 2015. On March 1, 2016, the commissioner of the Central Administrative Court reportedly found that the decision to dismiss Professor Somsak was unlawful, inasmuch as he had fled Thailand to avoid grave danger to his life and liberty, and thus could not properly be charged with being absent without leave. The commissioner’s finding notwithstanding, the final decision in the case will be made by a panel of Central Administrative Court judges.
On April 11, 2016, a judicial panel on the Central Administrative Court annulled Professor Somsak’s termination, affirming the commissioner’s earlier finding on different grounds. Specifically, rather than citing concerns for Professor Somsak’s life and liberty, the court reasoned that the intent of the scholar’s leave was to conduct research and, therefore, he had not neglected his academic duties. The court ordered the university to reinstate the scholar’s academic status. As of this update, Professor Somsak remains in exile, and the court’s decision has no bearing on his ability to return to Thailand.