SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: May 05, 2021

Attack Types: Prosecution

Institution(s):Chiang Mai University

Region & Country:Southeastern Asia | Thailand

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 5, 2021, Thai police summoned two Chiang Mai University (CMU) students, Yotsunthon Ruttapradit and Withaya Khlangnin, on lèse-majesté charges for on-campus artistic expression. 

Ruttapradit, an art and design student, and Withaya Khlangnin, a philosophy student, exhibited an art installation piece during a student protest at the university on March 14. The piece featured a mannequin underneath plastic wrap and surrounded by white and red stripes. The installation resembled the Thai flag, and the mannequin was placed in the middle, where a blue stripe would have been marked. The blue stripe, missing in the students’ art piece, represents the Thai monarchy. Students were invited to write messages on the red and white stripes of the art piece; they reportedly addressed the government and Thailand’s lèse-majesté law.

On March 22, the Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, along with several other university faculty, attempted to remove the art installation from campus without informing the student artists. According to Prachatai, the Dean and his colleagues claimed that the artwork was being removed in order to clean the campus and stated that some of the items could violate the law.

Thai police summoned Ruttapradit and Khlangnin to the Phuping Rajanivej Police Station on May 5 to answer to charges that the art installation violated Section 112 of the Criminal Code, Thailand’s lèse majesté law, and the 1979 Flag Act, which criminalizes using any means to disrespect the flag, such as destroying it, cutting it, or writing on it. Srisuwan Janya, Secretary-General of the Association for the Protection of the Constitution, filed the initial complaint against the students. According to iLaw, police called the students, summoning them to the station and threatening to serve arrest warrants if they did not appear. Police also informed the students that they would be taken to Chiang Mai Provincial Court for a temporary detention request. 

On May 11, Khlangnin and Ruttapradit reported to the police station to answer to the charges. Before entering the station, Khlangnin conducted a performance art protest in which he sat in the middle of crumpled newspapers and carved the number “112” on the left side of his chest, in reference to Section 112 of the Criminal Code. Both students denied all charges and were released with a requirement to report to the police on May 31.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about a criminal investigation into students for their nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a party. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from restricting or retaliating against expressive activity, so long as it is nonviolent and responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, criminal investigations intended to chill nonviolent expressive activity — especially when undertaken by students on campus — undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.