Recently the National Thai Studies Centre (NTSC) at the ANU decided to host an official delegation despatched by the military junta’s public relations “war room” (not my term, but one used by the Thai press). The event will be held tomorrow (Wednesday 22 August) at 10.30 in Sparke Helmore Law Theatre 1 (Law Faculty). The decision of the NTSC raises important questions about the relationship between politics and academic endeavour. Over the past week there have been a series of email exchanges between NTSC board members discussing the merits, or otherwise, of the decision to host the event. I don’t want to breach confidences and I will not quote directly from these exchanges, but they have raised important issues that merit wider consideration.

There is a range of opinion on the appropriateness of the NTSC hosting the delegation, which is lead by senior diplomat and now Deputy Secretary to the Prime Minister, Surapong Jayanama. Some NTSC Board members, like myself, consider it highly undesirable that the NTSC provide a platform for an event managed and organised by the Thai government. Those holding this view seem to agree that the Thai Embassy in Canberra would be the appropriate venue. Others have argued that the NTSC should host the event given the broader interest in promoting free academic debate on a matter of considerable current interest (especially in the wake of the referendum on Sunday). The standing and reputation of the members of the delegation is cited in defence of this view. There has also been some discussion of adding additional speakers to the program, but whether or not this is logistically possible (or politically possible given the Embassy’s role in organising the event) remains to be seen. [UPDATE: The Embassy/delegation has vetoed the proposal from NTSC board members for additional speakers. They do not want the event presented as a debate. They are happy to have comments and questions from the floor.]

The position I have put, on New Mandala and in emails to board members, has been criticised by some as an attempt to silence people that I don’t agree with. It has been suggested that I, and board members with similar views, are seeking to restrict free academic discussion.

Let me make a few points about my approach to academic free speech. First, the claim that I don’t want people who hold different views to mine to speak at the ANU is simply ludicrous and does not warrant response. In fact, my concern about this event is precisely that it does not provide a forum for an open and free exchange of views. It is important to note that this is being promoted as a discussion on the “current political situation in Thailand.” I find it extraordinary that a university would seek to hold such a discussion with all speakers nominated by the Thai military government. As I commented on New Mandala last week, I cannot imagine an Australian university hosting a discussion on the “current political situation in Australia” with a speaker list nominated, managed and funded by John Howard’s office! And if a university did make the extraordinary decision to host such an event I cannot imagine them not clearly signalling the control of Howard’s office in promotional material for the event. But this is exactly what is happening as a result of NTSC’s decision to host a “discussion” on Thai politics with a speakers list nominated and funded by Surayud’s “war room.”

In email exchanges between board members over the past week some have argued that the event does, in fact, promote free discussion because there will be an opportunity for questions and comments. How much time is allocated for this remains to be seen, but with a time limit of 1.5 hours and 5 (government-nominated) speakers on the program I am not confident that there will be ample time for alternative commentary. [UPDATE: the question time has been extended.] There is also the issue of the basic inequality in status between a scheduled speaker and a questioner from the floor. But there is a more fundamental and much more important issue. It is no secret that some academics and a good number of students are reluctant to openly express their opinions at a function organised by the Thai Embassy, especially when such views relate to issues as sensitive as the role of the Thai king in providing ideological support for military rule. Of course there is no such thing as a completely free academic/public sphere in which people will feel completely free to express their views. But in the promotion of informed debate on a highly contentious matter, the ANU should be striving to provide a forum for debate that is as free as reasonably possible. In hosting an event arranged by the Thai Prime Ministers’ office and locally organised by the Thai Embassy the ANU is hardly signalling its commitment to provide a neutral, secure and transparent venue.

Another line of argument is that this is, in essence, a storm in a tea-cup and the no-one in Thailand really cares if the ANU hosts the event or not. In some respects this is true. It is hardly going to be headline news in Thailand if the ANU accepts or rejects the delegation. But I don’t think the ANU is as irrelevant as people are suggesting. The reasons why Surayud’s “war room” has despatched this mission are not completely clear, but they clearly are seeking international platforms that give some semblance of academic respectability. And these events are reported in the Thai press and do play some small part in signalling a degree of credibility for defenders of the coup on the international academic stage. A clear statement by the NTSC that it was not willing to host this event could send a small signal that our view of freedom of speech does not extend to accepting, as a basis for a “discussion on the current political situation,” a delegation from a government that seized power with military force, maintains its rule by the widespread application of martial law and actively represses political comment and political activity. A quixotic gesture perhaps. But an honourable one.