‘Junta Targets Scholars for New Detentions’ read the headline of the New York Times, putting Thai intellectuals and intellectuals around the world on notice that academic freedom and freedoms of thought, opinion and expression were once again under grave threat. Two days earlier, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army, led a coup by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which abrogated the 2007 Constitution and installed itself as the government. After over six months of increasing political contention the military remained largely silent; the violence of the coup spoke for itself. What is clear after the first month of rule by the NCPO is that this is the most repressive regime in Thailand since that which followed the 6 October 1976 massacre and coup. The junta will brook no dissent and has imposed significant restrictions on political freedom and freedom of expression.
The NCPO has used a range of methods of arrest and detention to target dissidents, including the arrest of peaceful demonstrators at anti-coup protests, orders announced via public broadcast for citizens to report themselves to the military in Bangkok, informal summons conveyed by telephone call and other quiet means in the provinces, and arrests carried out during raids on homes. A climate of intimidation is present inside the halls of universities, particularly those outside the capital, and faculty and students are under continued surveillance. Meanwhile many university administrators, intentionally or otherwise, helped create the pretext for the coup by supporting protests that aimed to subvert the constitutional process, and have since generally complied with the junta’s requests instead of acting to protect intellectual freedom.
Under the terms of martial law, soldiers can detain and interrogate scholars and anyone else for up to seven days without having to provide evidence of wrongdoing or bring formal charges. The junta has explicitly refused to provide a total number of those summoned, detained, or released, or to identify the places of detention. People can be held at irregular places of detention, including permanent or temporary military bases or other sites designated as places of detention. Detention in irregular places means that the possibility for rights violations is greatly increased. Detainees who are released are required to sign a statement saying that they were not coerced, tortured, or otherwise mistreated while in detention, as well as promise not to engage in political activities or meetings, or leave the country without the permission of the head of the junta. Truth and freedom by permission only.
According to information made public on the one-month anniversary of the coup by Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, an organization of human rights lawyers who provide legal aid to those affected by the junta, at least 454 persons have been publicly summoned to report themselves in Bangkok, and at least 57 have been informally summoned in the provinces. Those who do not respond to the summons face proceedings in a military court and a possible fine and a two-year prison sentence.
While the summons lists have included a range of people, including businesspeople and politicians, dissident thinkers have been prominent on them. In the years of political turmoil since the last coup on 19 September 2006, scholars, intellectuals outside universities, writers, students, artists and others have publicly written, spoken, and demonstrated against state violence, the use of the charge of disloyalty to the monarchy as a tool of political persecution, the unequal application of law and the constriction of freedom of speech. Many of them are intellectuals in the broadest sense – individuals who have brought knowledge and carefully-reasoned thinking to bear on urgent social, political, and legal problems. Even further, they have all worked to make this knowledge accessible to the public, rather than keeping it within the realm of the educated few.
While the precise forms of repression used by the junta change from day-to-day, what is clear from the first month is that dissident thinkers are among their primary targets. What is also clear is that citizens will continue to seek the truth; to question what is taking place, regardless of the harsh consequences. This means that those of us, especially members of the international higher education community, who are concerned about academic freedom, justice and rights need to closely follow and think about what is taking place in Thailand.