AAS Statement on Academic Freedom in Thailand

Download PDF of statement in Thai

Issued by the AAS Board of Directors
April 7, 2021

The Association for Asian Studies (AAS) is deeply concerned by growing intellectual repression in Thailand. Since the 2014 military coup d’etat, the country has seen an increasing number of attacks on academic freedom. Defamation lawsuits and the selective interpretation and enforcement of lèse-majesté laws have been used to stifle scholarship, limit academic discussion, and silence individual scholars. Chulalongkorn University’s decision to block Dr. Nattapoll Chaiching’s dissertation—and the ongoing lawsuit against him and his publisher over his book—are the most recent examples of this distressing trend. In defense of academic freedom, we encourage Chulalongkorn University to halt its investigation and unblock Dr. Nattapoll’s dissertation; we also urge the Bangkok Civil Court to dismiss its lawsuit.

Background

In 2020, Same Sky Books (Fa Diew Kan) published Dr. Nattapoll Chaiching’s book The Junta, the Lords, and the Eagle (in Thai), which is based on material from his 2009 Ph.D. dissertation at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. The book offers a serious scholarly appraisal and analysis of the collaboration between the U.S. and Thai security forces in the 1950s, and the role played by the Thai monarchy. The study is based on meticulous, original research and analysis of primary documents. In the climate of Thailand’s youth movement today, serious research on political history is in high demand. It was in part for this reason that The Junta, the Lords, and the Eagle quickly became the best-selling Thai academic book of the year.

The book’s success met with a backlash. On 5 March 2021, M.R. Priyananda Rangsit, grand-daughter of Prince Rangsit (1885-1951) filed a US$1.5 million lawsuit against Dr. Nattapoll, who is now a faculty member at Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University; Dr. Kullada Kesboonchu-Mead, his Ph.D. advisor; and Same Sky Books. The lawsuit alleges an intentional defamation of Prince Rangsit, a point that was earlier acknowledged as a misreading of historical documents regarding the Prince’s possible interference at a government cabinet meeting. This misreading appeared in a passage from the 2009 dissertation, but was not included in the book.

The lawsuit was filed following actions taken against Dr. Nattapoll by Chulalongkorn University (CU). In 2018, CU bowed to outside pressure and established a committee to investigate his work. They concluded their investigation by acknowledging that the mistake was unintentional and did not impact the dissertation’s broader argument. Yet, despite this conclusion, CU blocked access to the dissertation. And in February 2021—in the context of both the book’s success and growing political contention around the monarchy—Chulalongkorn University established a new committee to investigate Dr. Nattapoll once again.

Impact

CU’s renewed investigation and the lawsuit against Dr. Nattapoll, Dr. Kullada, and Same Sky Books are part of a broader pattern of unwarranted suppression of dissent. Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws have been used extensively to prevent the open discussion of past events, a process crucial to civil society and the country’s political future. As a scholarly organization, the AAS sees these actions as directly opposed to its core values of academic freedom, open scholarly discussion, and debate. Chulalongkorn University is known worldwide as one of Thailand’s leading academic institutions. We urge them to uphold the principles of academic freedom, which are crucial for continuing its tradition of excellence in scholarship, and so its richly deserved reputation.

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