Thailand's New Academic Victim

Thailand has another victim of the government’s draconian lese-majeste laws, this time a lecturer in Buddhist studies at Rajabhat Suan Dusit University in the southern resort city of Hua Hin, Ajahn Surapot Taweesak, who was taken into custody on Dec. 2.

The regime appears to be trying to use scare tactics against selected resistant parties and common citizens, especially those who seek to present a coherent and reasoned challenge to their position vis-à-vis the lese majeste law.

Surapot joins Ampon Tangnoppakul, 61, who was sentenced recently to20 years in prison for allegedly insulting Queen Sirikit in four SMS texts sent to an official working for Thailand’s former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva despite the fact that Ampon’s wife and family insist he doesn’t even know how to send mobile phone text messages. Ampon was followed into prison by Joe Gordon, a U.S. citizen born in Thailand as Lerpong Wichaikhamma, who was given two and a half years in prison for allegedly translating portions of The King Never Smiles, a book by former Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent Paul Handley, into Thai.

The number of lèse-majesté charges has grown almost exponentially in recent years, though the exact numbers of those charged and convicted are not available. Some estimates say that the caseload has tripled over five years, to 478 charges in 2010. Statistics obtained by The Associated Press, which came from Thailand’s Office of the Attorney General, show that 36 cases were sent for prosecution in 2010. That is a doubling of numbers since 2005 and up from just one in 2000.

The growing crackdown on free speech has generated increasing protest, with a peaceful march planned for tomorrow, and a Facebook drive headed by Singapore-based academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, entitled ‘Thailand’s fearlessness.”

Surapot has from time to time posted articles and comments on the Prachatai Website (including a response to a piece posted by Somsak Jeamteerasakul on 10 August 2010). Surapot uses his real name for articles relating to Buddhism and society, but a pen name, translated as “fringe philosopher”when he writes about politics.

Surapot was the first academic to attempt a nationwide survey among the sangha, or community of ordained monks and nuns, to ascertain political viewpoints in the post-2006 colour-coded crisis. His most recent piece was comparing the 10 virtues of the Dhamma’raachaa, Buddhist scripture, and its modern incompatibility with sustaining the lese majeste law.

The police first came to Surapot’s university on Oct. 6, 2010 and then all was quiet – until recently when he was again contacted by police from Bangkok and taken to Roi Et Province where charges were formally laid.

Critics are questioning why the government has chosen to take action against him after the Pheu Thai Party headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, came to government. In fact many recent cases date back to offences seemingly made under the previous unelected Abhisit government. This indicates intent by the regime and its skewed “independent” bodies including the judiciary to show who has real power in Thailand.

It is almost certainly not the elected government. The royalist faction, currently on the back foot since its Democrat Party-military program failed at the last election, is intensifying the attack through its judicial system. Many believe it is only a matter of time when they will bring Pheu Thai down through the courts, as they have successive governments since the 2006 coup that brought down Thaksin in 2006.

For those who can read Thai, Surapot’s account and the reasons for his arrest can be found here.

(James Taylor is a Senior Lecturer at the Anthropology & Development Studies School of Social Sciences, The University of Adelaide in Australia.)