The 11th International Conference on Thai Studies will be held at Mahidol University from 26-28 July 2011.

I won’t be attending.

The Thai government has made it known, through informal, indirect, and readily deniable channels, that I would not be welcome in Thailand as a result of my activities on New Mandala.

Exactly what “not welcome” means is not clear. It may just be a matter of an immediate flight back to Sydney from Suvarnabhumi Airport. Or it may mean something much more inconvenient. In the current climate of legal harassment, I am not prepared to find out.

Of course, my situation is a mere blip on the radar screen of international Thai studies. But it does raise a bigger issue.

Is it appropriate to hold an international gathering of Thai studies scholars in Thailand when the government is actively repressing open discussion on issues that should lie at the heart of the scholarly enterprise? Should Thai studies scholars maintain a scholarly pretense of free speech while activists within Thailand are actively pursued by draconian laws?

In the lead-up to the 2008 International Conference on Thai Studies there was vigorous discussion on New Mandala about a proposal that international scholars boycott the conference in the wake of the 2006 coup. As one New Mandala reader wrote:

This [2008] 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 [2008] 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.

I didn’t support the boycott and I attended the 2008 conference to participate in one of the panels specifically organised to discuss the monarchy. (For New Mandala coverage of the 2008 conference see here, here, here, here, here and here).

I am not arguing for a boycott on this occasion but it would be unfortunate if the 2011 conference went ahead without another round of healthy discussion on these difficult issues.