On Wednesday I will be attending the International Conference of Thai Studies being held at Thammasat University in Bangkok. I attend the conference with considerable mixed feelings. Many readers may be aware that in March 2007 New Mandala raised the issue of a boycott of the conference. In that post we reproduced the following statement from a regular New Mandala reader and contributor:

As was recently announced, the up-coming 10th International Thai Studies Conference is to be held at Thammasat University 9-11 January 2008, “to celebrate the auspicious occasion of the 80th birth anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej in recognition of His Majesty’s great benevolence and life-long work for the well-being of the Thai people”.

This 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 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.

It is very unlikely that issues relating to the monarchy’s role in the coup and its support for the current regime could be freely discussed at the conference. In fact, scholars who presented papers on such themes could potentially risk being charged with lèse majesté, which carries a maximum imprisonment term of 15 years. Participation in a conference censored of critical references to the monarchy would be a betrayal of the standards of international academic scholarship.

Foreign scholars of Thai Studies should also consider the financial implications of their attendance. ‘Non-Thai’ Thai Studies scholars will, in effect, be subsidizing the royalist-military junta’s propaganda in celebrating the King’s 80th birthday.

It is not hard to imagine the likely coverage of the conference by Thailand’s controlled media: “100s of foreign scholars from the world’s most prestigious universities gather in Thailand to honour the King”. Not only will you be greatly assisting the junta by giving an international academic imprimatur to their propaganda, but you will also be helping it pay the bill.

Thai scholars are not at liberty to protest against the complicity of the monarchy in the undermining of democracy in Thailand because of the lèse majesté law. But this does not apply to foreign scholars.

I urge you to consider carefully your decision whether or not to attend this conference.

At the time I was substantially in agreement with the call for a boycott. But subsequent events have persuaded me to attend. The key events have been the organisation of a series of panels in which the Thai monarchy will be subject to concerted academic scrutiny. As far as I know this public scrutiny is a first for Thailand (if not the world). Given the acceptance of these panels I felt inclined to support both the specific panel organisers and the conference organisers more generally by attending the conference. I will be presenting a paper which critiques the misrepresentation of rural livelihoods in the royal sufficiency economy philosophy.

But my mixed feelings remain. It was hoped by many attending that the conference would take place under a new, democratically elected, government. This has not come to pass, and the current coup by stealth being attempted in Bangkok is an ominous sign for the future of democratic rule.

It is also clear that, the panels on the monarch notwithstanding, that the conference will be used by the formidable royal public relations machine to promote the international academic credentials of the monarchy. This public relations benefit for a monarchy that has been a key supporter of the 2006 coup and remains silent on the current attempt to subvert the electoral process, was highlighted in the original call for a boycott of the conference.

At this stage, I can only hope that panellists at the conference deliver on the free, open and academically critical discussion that has been promised. I have little doubt that there are some nervous panellists who are considering reimposing the long-standing self-censorship on so-called “sensitive” issues that has bedevilled Thai studies. While the recent action taken against the outspoken website Fa Diawkan may have compounded their nervousness it should, in fact, embolden them. As in international scholarly community we should be clearly indicating that we support free academic discussion and that we stand side-by-side with those who attempt to promote open political and social discussion within Thailand.