On 27 July 2011 the Thai Embassy in Canberra was involved in organising a very interesting meeting at University House at the Australian National University (the photo above shows a much earlier gathering of Thai students in Canberra).

The guest of honour was Surapong Jayanama, Director of the Saranrom Institute of Foreign Affairs, which is funded by Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “facilitating interchange on foreign policy issues and to fostering a better appreciation and understanding of international affairs.” Surapong, who was formally formerly ambassador to Germany, is closely linked to outspoken critics of Thaksin Shinawatra, including his brother Asda Jayanama and former Foreign Minister, Kasit Piromya. Surapong is no stranger to the ANU, having previously led the post-coup public relations delegation on its visit to the National Thai Studies Centre in August 2007.

Thai students from the ANU and the University of Canberra were summoned, via their association’s Facebook page, to meet with Surapong. The Embassy’s education office was also represented. I don’t have the precise details of Surapong’s address to the students, but it included general attacks on Thaksin and a defence of the 2006 coup. Students were urged to defend Thailand and the monarchy from attacks by foreigners and to avoid being influenced by some of the things they may hear about Thailand while studying here in Canberra. The location of the meeting at ANU was no coincidence, given Surapong’s concern that academics associated with New Mandala were involved in activities that were unfriendly to Thailand. I understand that I was referred to in very impolite terms (apparently Surapong has something of a reputation for his use of colourful language).

I have no problems with universities being used as a place for discussion and debate of contentious issues. But this meeting strikes me as being a little strange for two reasons.

First, this meeting took place more than three weeks after the July 3 election. Why is the Director of a government-funded institute involved in attacking figures who are very close to the new government and defending an illegal coup against the new government’s political allies in 2006? I can accept that figures like Surapong may have little respect for the constitutional rule of law but surely some respect towards the incoming government would be appropriate, especially given Surapong’s close association with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Second, why are Thai government representatives involved in back-room attempts to influence or guide the thinking of students studying in Australia? International students come to Australia to participate in a free and open academic culture. They come with diverse political views and, no doubt, they leave with a similarly diverse mix of opinions. That’s what education is all about. Thai government officials would be very welcome to come to universities in Australia and present their points of view and engage in open debate. But this sort of behind-the-scenes cajoling of students (many of whom are on Thai government-funded scholarships) is not welcome in Australia’s open and inclusive academic culture.