Following the recent military coup in Thailand, free speech, free assembly and academic freedom have been massively constrained. Now, the junta is even trying to extend these restrictions overseas.
The Thai junta has restricted broadcast and print media, tried to censor social media, and cracked down on anti-coup protests. Chillingly, it has also instructed journalists and academics to "report" to them. They are held incommunicado for indefinite periods and apparently released only on the proviso that they sign agreements that subsequently restrict their speech and conduct.
External observers and many expatriate Thais are naturally deeply alarmed by these events. People want to understand why this is happening, and what might happen next. This is why I co-organised a public panel discussion at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on 2 June, with the university's Thai Society. The panel will include a respected Thai lawyer, Verapat Pariyawong - one of those "summoned" by the regime - and my fellow Southeast Asia expert, Dr Carlo Bonura.
I was therefore disgusted, if not surprised, that the Thai embassy in London put pressure on SOAS's Thai Society to cancel the event, stating that "the timing of the activity at the present juncture is inappropriate". Apparently, they oppose Verapat's participation because he was a former advisor to the ousted, democratically elected government - even though he is also critical of the Pheu Thai party.
To target students like this is deplorable. Many Thai students in Britain receive Thai government scholarships, and the Thai Society depends on good relations with the embassy to stage its events. Perhaps the embassy did not seriously expect its demands to be met, but was merely formally registering its opposition to please its new masters in Bangkok. But, for these students, pressure from the embassy is not negligible: it is deeply unnerving. Such demands create a chilling effect in Thai communities outside Thailand.
In a bizarre twist, the Thai ambassador to the United Kingdom was himself subsequently "summoned" by the junta. He is rumoured to be personally sympathetic to the ousted democratic government. Perhaps trying to cancel our event was an attempt to demonstrate his loyalty to Thailand's new rulers; evidently, it was not enough.
Quite rightly, the Thai Society, SOAS and I dismissed the embassy's demand to cancel the event. The cornerstone of a university's life, and its signal contribution to modern society, is academic freedom: the absolute right to pursue any line of inquiry without fear or favour. Particularly at times like these, universities must provide space for informed reflection, civilised discussion, and free debate. Only engagement like this generates ideas for taking our societies forward.
By contrast, Thailand's military coup has plunged the country back into a time-warp. The coup emerges from a very deep and persistent socio-political crisis, now a decade old. The last time the military seized power, in 2006, it utterly failed to resolve this crisis: despite rigging the constitution, it could not exclude from power the "red-shirt" forces represented by Pheu Thai (formerly Thai Rak Thai and the People's Power Party). Instead, when democracy was restored, these forces were re-elected, as they have been at every election since 2001. The same held when the military engineered a change of government in 2008: the new regime could not last, and ended up killing around 90 anti-government protestors in a violent crackdown in 2010.
There is no reason to believe that yet another military regime will have any more success in writing the "red-shirts" out of history. Despite being led in parliament by disreputable oligarchs, they represent a rising social force of lower- and middle-income Thais who are tired of being used as passive vote-banks by the traditional elite, and are demanding their share of power and Thailand's growing prosperity.
The only way forward is a new social contract that distributes power and resources more equitably. We get that by talking and negotiating, not from the barrel of a gun. The sooner the freedoms necessary for this discussion are restored in Thailand, the better.