Back in March and April, New Mandala hosted a lively debate about the Thai Studies conference that will be held in Bangkok in January 2008. Readers looking for an introduction to this conversation (or hoping to refresh their memories) will find these two posts – 15 March and 13 April – particularly helpful. At the time, there were many critical comments and questions about the conference and its academic character.

As a result of the way that the conference material was presented, a number of important questions were canvassed:

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?

Answers to these questions have now started to emerge. Thongchai Winichakul – who has encouraged critical scholars to present their analyses at the conference – has penned a letter that helps to clarify the current situation.

July 16, 2007

Dear friends,

Re: the International Conference on Thai Studies in Jan 08, thank you for all the efforts many good proposals that are critical to the current situation in Thailand were submitted. For my part, I have organized three panels on the monarchy under the proposal titled, “On the Monarchy: Accessories, Lese Majesty and One Book,” with overt intention to challenge the repressive atmosphere in Thailand. The focus on the monarchy is also by design, given the nature of the coup last year.

I am excited to inform friends and colleagues that the three panels on the monarchy have officially been accepted.

The first panel covers aspects of the economic, political and cultural mechanism that are necessary to the monarchy, namely the Crown Property Bureau, the Privy Council, and the cult of King Chulalongkorn and the one of the present king. The second panel focuses on the legal flaws of the lese majesty law and its detriment to the political and intellectual life.

The third panel is a discussion about Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. This panel is a special treat for this subject and a pointed response to the attempt by the Thai state to block the publication of the book and to the ban of it in Thailand. For this special occasion, the speakers are chosen among the top scholars in Thai studies, all of whom graciously agree.

These panels, especially the open talk about Handley’s book, should send a strong message that the country needs an open discussion on the monarchy with no threats of persecution. A critical discussion on the monarchy is also a statement that public discourses on other sensitive issues should be allowed and encouraged as well. I believe that this is the spirit shared by participants of these panels and by all of us.

Apart from the monarchy panels, I also learn that most other proposals that deal with sensitive issues have been accepted as well. These include the panels/papers on the Sufficiency Economy; on democracy, military and the 2006 coup; on media and film censorship; on the conservative cultural directives by the state and its surveillance; on history of violence, the crisis in the south, and more.

The acceptance of these panels may be seen in various ways according to one’s political view and speculation about the politics of this conference. The fact remains that many of our Thai colleagues who are involved in organizing this conference and many more who are looking forward to it, share the view that the engagement by critical scholarship is what academics like us can wage against the anti-democratic tendency in Thailand. These Thai colleagues operate under enormous constraints, politically and otherwise. But they are doing their best to make the conference a strong intellectual event and a loud critical noise in face of tanks and the “yellow fever”.

Indeed we should give them credits for their courage to uphold academic freedom as they possibly can under very difficult conditions.

We can do our part by making the conference as critical and as successful as it can be.

I appreciate all the supports, advices and help I received after the previous letter in April. The delightful moments came when many of you offered yourselves to speak on sensitive issues, and when those whom I contacted for the monarchy panels answered “yes” with no hesitation, despite the sensitivity and delicacy of the subject. I also appreciate those who cannot do it for various reasons and those whom I have to decline but who remain very helpful with advices and other supports.

Hope these academic activities can be some contributions to the efforts that are trying to prevent Thailand from going much further along the path of the aristocratic-military rule.


Thongchai Winichakul

P.S. To those who said that these critical panels are only for farang (the outsiders) because they can speak more freely while Thais (the insiders) cannot, due to the law and repressive conditions in Thailand, I am glad to inform that for the three panels on the monarchy, there are more Thais speakers than farang, not even including myself (the outside-insider?) who is the organizer but not a speaker.