Since our post of last week canvassing the issue of a boycott of the 10th International Conference of Thai Studies (ICTS) there has been considerable debate and discussion. Some of this has taken place publicly on New Mandala itself, but there have also been numerous off-line email contributions (we have been party to some of these exchanges, others have been forwarded to us).
At this stage it seems useful to summarise some of the key points of this ongoing discussion.
тАв In general there appears to be limited support for a boycott, primarily because it would limit academic exchange and discussion.
тАв Some consider a boycott would be ineffective in terms of having any meaningful impact on the Thai political situation or on broader issues of intellectual freedom. As one email contributor wrote: “I am certain that a boycott would only impede the open exchange of knowledge and interpretations of these issues rather than have any influence in changing government (and societal) practices regarding censorship.”
тАв Some argue that there are unlikely to be real restrictions on freedom of discussion at the conference. One very experienced Thai studies scholar wrote (in an email to colleagues): “I cannot recall any paper or panel at a conference held in Thailand being rejected because the topic was sensitive or too provocative.”
тАв Some consider that a boycott would be a missed opportunity as the conference potentially provides a forum for sustained academic critique. A number of scholars have canvassed various options for “protest” at the conference, drawing inspiration from protests staged at previous Thai conferences that were held in contexts of political repression.
тАв Some point out that, if the coup makers keep their word, the conference is likely to take place under a new democratically elected government in Thailand.
These contributions are a welcome opening up of the issue of academic freedom at the ICTS. From our point of view, and that of a number of other contributors to the discussion, a key initial test for the ICTS will be whether or not organisers will accept panel and paper proposals that clearly involve critical academic commentary on the monarchy, the monarchy’s role in the coup, the monarchy’s support for the current military regime and various initiatives and policies strongly associated with the monarchy (such as sufficiency economy). There is surely some doubt about this given the explicit role of the conference in honouring the king and his various achievements. New Mandala has seen one official letter from the conference organisers that has been circulated in Thailand in which this is set out as the primary objective. Some may consider this framing of the conference to be merely a symbolic gesture. Others are reading rather more into it.
Last week New Mandala wrote to the organisers inviting them to respond to the issues raised in our previous post. We would be very happy to host a detailed post from them setting out their position. At this stage we have received no response. We agree with the sentiments of another academic contributor to this debate:
But if they [the conference organisers] agree … that academic freedom is the real issue to prevent the boycott, I think they should issue a statement … unequivocally assuring that academic freedom is guaranteed at the conference. But if they cannot assure freedom for these scholars, or if they are equivocal about it, I think the boycott would gain momentum.