Thai Threat Kicks Off US Academic Debate

Last week, a Harvard University onetime graduate named Illya Garger published an article in the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, questioning the fact that his alma mater was considering collaborating with Surin Pitsuwan and Surakiart Satrathai, two former Thai foreign ministers, to raise US$6 million to fund a program to “promote Thailand’s monarchy and national interests.”

Garger was almost immediately answered by a Los Angeles microbiologist named Peera Hemarajata, a Thai who posted a threat on Facebook to kill him for being anti-monarchy if he ever saw him on the street.

The story raised a momentary 15-minute pop on the Internet, especially when the Crimson pulled the article in the face of the threat. Garger was attempting to bring up the point that Harvard was collaborating with supporters of the May 22 coup engineered by Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha and that “by lending credibility to allies of a totalitarian regime and allowing them to use Harvard as a platform, the university is doing Thailand and itself a disservice.”

That message may have disappeared along with publicity over Peera’s threat, one which he later retracted. The Crimson also reposted the article. But in the US academic world, it has kicked off a controversy over allowing crooks, dictators and tyrants of various stripes and hues to endow chairs to publicize their names and presumably enhance or rebuild their reputations when there is little other means to do so other than their names, chiseled into stone on the sides of ivied American campus buildings.

Academics joined the controversy via a long email string in which Shawn McHale, an associate professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, wrote, for instance, that “Who gives money IS important. The reputability of donors matters. Universities routinely turn down money from donors of dubious reputability.” McHale said he wasn’t opposed to the Thai donation to Harvard. But, he said:

“There is no Imelda Marcos Chair in fashion accessories in any university, no Suharto Chair in security policy studies, no Adnan Khashoggi endowment at Swarthmore College, founded by Quakers (Khashoggi, a money-launderer involved in arms sales, tried to donate money to that institution, but failed.) “

But George Washington did take US$40 million from onetime Drexel Burnham Lambert chief Michael Milken earlier this year to support the university’s school of public health. Milken, once dubbed the “junk bond king,” was jailed for 10 years and fined US$600 million for securities and reporting violations in 1989. He ultimately had his sentence cut to two years for cooperating with authorities and naming names to send other Drexel individuals to jail. He has been steadily working to rehabilitate his name for decades.

And, although, as McHale says, there is no Imelda Marcos chair in fashion accessories anywhere, there was indeed a Marcos chair at the Boston-based Tufts University, until the money was mostly belatedly withdrawn in 1981 after 1,000 students gathered to boo Imelda and disrupted her visit in 1977.

The fact is that many US universities and colleges tend to look the other way if the money is important enough. A few examples out of many are provided below. The biggest, and most troubling, is that 97 universities across the United States have accepted money from the Chinese government to create “Confucius Institutes,” contractual arrangements between colleges (and other institutions) around the world and Hanban, an agency based in China that oversees the entire operation. Hanban is staffed with Chinese government bureaucrats. They are an effort to project China's soft power worldwide via culture and education, Beijing reportedly put up US$10 billion to establish the first 100 institutes. Xinhua, the Chinese state wire service, reported in 2011 that 316 Confucius Institutes had been established in 94 countries.

The institutes are careful to brook no criticism of the Chinese government. In the memoranda of understanding that US universities conclude with the institutes, among other things, they must state their support for the "one China policy" – the decades-old US policy of not recognizing the legitimacy of the Republic of China on Taiwan. This is despite the fact that the three major areas that China claims as its own – Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet – want nothing to do with the Chinese government, preferring autonomy. .

“The Confucian institute is a big problem. That is being discussed a lot at the association of Asian studies,” said Justin McDaniel, Professor of Buddhist Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, in an email. Nonetheless, the institutes keep marching across the American university landscape.

The University of Oregon was one of the first in the US to establish a Confucius Institute on its campus. But it is also facing considerable embarrassment over a gift from Omar Bongo Jr. of Gabon, who has been described, with some justification, as a “kleptocrat.” US Homeland Security agents and the Justice Department have been hunting for missing Gabonese assets squirreled away in the United States, according to a university newspaper, and confiscated US$150,000 being passed surreptitiously to Bongo’s wife in Los Angeles. At least part of the money provided to the university was used to hire former US Ambassador to Gabon Eric Benjaminson. It is believed that as much as 25 percent of the country’s oil and other revenues went into the Bongo family’s pockets.

“Although Ryoichi Sasakawa was an accused class-A war criminal and probably corrupt right-winger who spent time in Sugamo Prison after World War II, I see no problem in taking money from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, which has done a lot of good,” McHale wrote. “(Neither, for that matter, have ANU, Stanford, the East-West Center, or the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars had any problem with Sasakawa money).

“Many academics in East Asian studies have taken fellowships or grant money from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, named after the former chief of the secret police on Taiwan, Kuomintang member, and former authoritarian president of Taiwan who is also known for beginning to loosen the authoritarian rule on the island. So academics have been making compromises for a long time.”

Georgetown, the oldest Catholic Jesuit university in the United States, has a Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, funded by $20 million from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al-Saud of Saudia Arabia as well as funds from Kuwait for an endowed chair, plus nearly US$2.4 million from other Arab nations. Most controversial was a US$750,000 gift from Libya in 1977 that caused the director of special programs for the American Jewish Committee, to say the Arab Studies Center has a "clearly-marked pro-Arab, anti-Israel bias in its selection of curriculum material, its faculty appointments and speakers."

“I have nothing in particular against such a donation for a good cause,” McHale said. “But there is supreme irony in the fact that in Saudi Arabia, no Christian churches are allowed to open.”

Harvard's desire to raise money from Thai sources is not in itself something to criticize, McHale continued. ”But in my opinion (and experience), direct grants from governments are a pain in the neck -- governments like to control the results of their largesse, unless the money is for something apolitical. Everything depends on how, once it raises the money, Harvard protects free inquiry of ideas.”

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat and academic now teaching at the University of Kyoto in Japan, joined the email thread to ask if Harvard would be interested in using some of the funds to hire him. Thai authorities have a warrant out for Pavin’s arrest, have confiscated his passport and declared him stateless over his opposition to Prayuth’s coup. Others have suggested that the university consider Paul Handley, the former Far Eastern Economic Review journalist who wrote The King Never Smiles, considered the most authoritative – and critical – work ever written on the Thai monarchy. Handley is persona non grata in Thailand and would be arrested for lese majeste if he ever showed up again in the country.