The 10th International Thai Studies Conference is to be held at Thammasat University in January 2008. The conference website sets out the aims of the conference as follows:
The conference is a continuation of a well-established academic tradition which aims to promote research and in-depth study of Thai culture and society as well as to provide a forum for academics to present their viewpoints and research findings. Besides the academic focus, the conference will be an event to celebrate the auspicious occasion of the 80th birth anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej in recognition of His Majesty’s great benevolence and life-long work for the well-being of the Thai people.
This raises some important questions, including:
тАв Will academics be free to present “viewpoints and research findings” that are critical of the monarchy or initiatives and concepts (such as sufficiency economy) closely associated with the monarchy?
тАв Will free academic discussion at the conference be constrained by the lèse majesté law?
тАв Will the conference provide a forum for discussion of the role of the monarchy in the September 2006 coup and its role in relation to the current military regime?
тАв Should academics participate in an event that is specifically aimed at honouring an institution that has provided crucial ideological support to a military coup?
These issues have been raised in a recent statement provided by a New Mandala reader. The statement is reproduced here in full. We look forward to ongoing discussion and debate about this important issue.
As was recently announced, the up-coming 10th International Thai Studies Conference is to be held at Thammasat University 9-11 January 2008, “to celebrate the auspicious occasion of the 80th birth anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej in recognition of His Majesty’s great benevolence and life-long work for the well-being of the Thai people”.
This conference raises very important ethical questions for foreign scholars of Thai Studies: should they be supporting a conference held in honour of the King, who has endorsed the overthrow of a democratically elected government and has given his strong support to the royalist-military junta which seized power? Should they attend a conference held at a university whose Rector has accepted a position in a national legislature appointed by the junta?
This conference announcement has been made at a time when large parts of the country are still under martial law; the military has been granted greatly augmented powers of control over the country under the guise of national security; the mass media has been cowed; academic websites have been intimidated; deep concerns are being expressed about the proposed new constitution being drawn up by a constitutional drafting panel appointed by the military junta and headed by a former military intelligence officer; and the regime is heavily promoting the King’s “sufficiency economy” theory – which is protected from any open criticism by the lèse majesté law – as the country’s economic blueprint. At every opportunity the royalist-military regime is using the monarchy to give legitimacy to the destruction of democracy in Thailand.
It is very unlikely that issues relating to the monarchy’s role in the coup and its support for the current regime could be freely discussed at the conference. In fact, scholars who presented papers on such themes could potentially risk being charged with lèse majesté, which carries a maximum imprisonment term of 15 years. Participation in a conference censored of critical references to the monarchy would be a betrayal of the standards of international academic scholarship.
Foreign scholars of Thai Studies should also consider the financial implications of their attendance. ‘Non-Thai’ Thai Studies scholars will, in effect, be subsidizing the royalist-military junta’s propaganda in celebrating the King’s 80th birthday.
It is not hard to imagine the likely coverage of the conference by Thailand’s controlled media: “100s of foreign scholars from the world’s most prestigious universities gather in Thailand to honour the King”. Not only will you be greatly assisting the junta by giving an international academic imprimatur to their propaganda, but you will also be helping it pay the bill.
Thai scholars are not at liberty to protest against the complicity of the monarchy in the undermining of democracy in Thailand because of the lèse majesté law. But this does not apply to foreign scholars.
I urge you to consider carefully your decision whether or not to attend this conference.