At 9 am on 12 December 2018, the Chiang Mai district court held a hearing to question witnesses in the case of holding up the “An Academic Conference is Not a Military Barracks” sign during the International Conference on Thai Studies (ICTS) on 18 July 2017. There are 5 defendants in the case who were accused by military officials of violating Section 12 of Head of the NCPO Order No. 3/2558, which forbids political assembly or demonstration of 5 or more persons.
During the two previous witness hearings, 6 witnesses for the prosecution gave testimony. The court allowed the 4 remaining prosecution witnesses to be shifted to 12 December [originally set as the first day of defense witness hearings to be held 12-14 December].
Before witness testimony on the morning of 12 December, the prosecutor announced to the court that Head of the NCPO Order 22/2561, regarding the engagement of the people and political parties in political activities in the lead up to the election, was issued one day prior on 11 December. In Section 1 (7) of this order, Section 12 of Head of the NCPO Order No. 3/2558, which the 5 defendants in this case are accused of violating, was nullified. The prosecutor therefore asked the court to rule on whether or not this case could therefore continue. The court then issued an order to suspend the witness hearings scheduled for 12-14 December and set a meeting for all parties in the case to hear the ruling at 9 am on 25 December.
The lawyers for the defense announced to the court that as the prosecution had already presented nearly all of their evidence, but the defense had not presented any witness testimony, they still wished to present evidence to the court in order to prove their innocence. The defense asked the court to record this wish in the judicial proceedings report.
The lawyers for the defense further requested that each defendant be allowed to make a verbal statement to the court, and for each to be submitted as a written statement to the court and examined along with the ruling in ten days. The court agreed to this request.
The 5 defendants each made a verbal statement to the court. Each defendant emphasized the points s/he wished to make in relation to the accusations lodged against her/him. These statements do not carry the status of witness testimony.
Dr. Chayan stated that he denied the charges against him and faced difficulties due to the prosecution
Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, Defendant No. 1, stated that according to the prosecution’s accusation documents, he was accused of the crime of participating in a political demonstration of 5 or more persons. He was further accused of being a leader of northern nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). He denied both accusations.
Dr. Chayan noted that he was appointed by the rector of Chiang Mai University (CMU) to be the academic chair of the organizing committee of the 13th ICTS. Prior to the conference, he provided assurance to international academics that there would be academic freedom in the presentation of papers. He further met with the governor of Chiang Mai in order to coordinate security and traffic matters. CMU made a clear agreement to use the Chiang Mai International Exhibition and Convention Center (CMECC) for the conference.
Dr. Chayan stated that with regards to the accusation made by the prosecution, as the academic chair of the conference secretariat, he was informed by the secretariat staff that they had received information from the CMECC staff that an anti-military sign had been posted. He therefore went to look in front of a small meeting room and saw a sign with the message “An Academic Conference is Not a Military Barracks.” His view was that this sign was not against the military or the government in any way, but was merely an ordinary announcement. His view was that it could be posted in the given area.
Dr. Chayan stated that the CMECC staff further informed him that military officials had come to meet with him. He therefore waited to meet with the officials in order to explain the matter of the sign to them. But no military officials appeared. He was responsible for closing the conference and then went to the large auditorium to perform his role in the closing ceremony. Contra to the claims in the accusation, he did not participate in any symbolic protest.
“Once I was informed of the complaint and during the entire time I have been a defendant, I have faced trouble and hardship. I have had to report myself to the prosecutor every month, go to court, and have been viewed as a person who violates the orders of the NCPO. This has caused the CMU administration to develop misunderstandings about me. International academics with whom I have previously collaborated now have doubts about whether or not there is academic freedom in universities and academic conferences in Thailand. This has had an impact on the Thai academic community as well,” Dr. Chayan stated.
The message on the sign is the expression of an opinion about the interference of the military in the conference
Pakavadi Veerapaspong, Defendant No. 2, declared to the court that she was involved in ICTS as an invited speaker for a panel. During the conference, she also attended numerous panels. From the first day, she encountered a large number of plainclothes military officials at the conference. They attended panels and other conference events and photographed speakers and audience members. Their actions caused a great deal of unease for conference participants.
Pakavadi noted that she had encountered similar officials at various academic seminars prior to this conference. Although this event was different as it was an international conference in which English was used, the officials behaved in the same manner to create discomfort and unease for the participants. By the final day of the conference, she therefore agreed with the action of holding up a sign that read “An Academic Conference is Not a Military Barracks” for the officials to see. This action was neither previously planned nor does it fall within the scope of being a political demonstration. The action is the expression of the freedom to express the opinion that an academic conference is not a military barracks.
Pakavadi stated that she has been impacted by being prosecuted in this case. She has been treated as a criminal who must be fingerprinted and has wasted time reporting to the authorities. She learned from the investigation documents that she is a target of the state security organs, and noticed that their information is inconsistent with the facts on many points.
“I think that the impact of this coup is to have made soldiers interfere excessively in the lives of the people and to have turned the people’s freedom of expression into a crime. In addition, state officials have continuously interfered in the ordinary civilian lives of academics who must hold seminars and confer with one another, and turned these actions into crimes,” she stated to the court.
The people have the right to protect academic freedom
Nontawat Machai, Defendant No. 3, stated to the court that as a student in the Faculty of Mass Communication at Chiang Mai University and as a former member of the Student Council, he is often entrusted to assist in university activities, including taking photographs and serving as a moderator of events. During ICTS, the lecturers in his faculty assigned him to take photographs and aid with the opening and closing ceremonies. He therefore went in and out of all of the rooms in which different panels were held. He encountered plainclothes officials photographing speakers and audience members and using the headsets provided to participants who needed translation from English to Thai. He further observed individuals behaving differently than conference participants: they wore crewcuts, separated themselves and sat in the back of the room, did not speak with anyone, and photographed other people.
Nontawat stated that he met up with Defendant No. 4 on the final day of the conference. While they were drinking coffee, they saw the sign with the message “An Academic Conference is Not a Military Barracks” made out of 3 sheets of paper. Together, they held up the sign. He understood it to be an act to inform the soldiers of the dissatisfaction of the organizers. This was an instance of peaceful, and gentle, expression and communication. And, the space where the conference was held was truly not a military barracks.
Nontawat noted that his studies have been affected by his prosecution in this case. He has had to frequently miss class for the past 2 semesters. He has been unable to return home since he has to report himself to the authorities every month. Further, there are military and police officials who surveil him at the university as if he is a criminal. This is all because he refused to sign an MOU agreement [in which he admitted wrongdoing and promised not to engage in any political activities] for the case to come to an end, as it is his view that he did not commit a crime and he is uncertain as to the possible future effects of signing such an agreement.
“I am not an academic, I am merely one university student. As an ordinary person, it is my view that we should have academic freedom and we must insist on this freedom. I believe that ordinary people can protect academic freedom in one way or another. Therefore, I chose to express my view by holding up a sign with the message that an academic conference is not a military barracks.”
Insistence of the protection of academic freedom is the protection of the people’s freedom
Chaipong Samnieng, Defendant No. 4, stated to the court that he participated in ICTS as a paper presenter and the person who looked after the rooms in which panels were held. During the conference, he encountered military officials threatening participants asdescribed by other defendants. His view is that the threats to the people’s and academic freedom have been continuous since the 2014 coup, justified by the reference to the exceptional political situation. These continuous threats have resulted in a clear narrowing of the people’s and academic freedom.
“If the university cannot be the place to take an intellectual stand, and is frequently interfered in by the military, if the university is unable to protect academic freedom, it means we are unable to protect the intellect of the country. The university holds a status that means it is able to claim a greater right than other places. If there is no freedom in the university, it means the people do not have freedom. Therefore, the protection of academic freedom in the university is the protection of the freedom of other institutions as well.”
“If society is going to exist, there must be freedom. And the preservation of freedom is the preservation of our humanity. If we are not free, it means we are not human. Even though we are being prosecuted, we insist on the protection of freedom and are unable to accept extraordinary power. Finally, I take it to be a great honor, as a citizen and an academic, that I was accused of violating an NCPO order,” Chaipong stated to the court.
The prosecution of this case served only to destroy the image and reputation of the NCPO
Teeramon Buangam, Defendant No.5, stated to the court that he presented a paper at ICTS on 18 July 2017. After he presented his paper, he went to listen to a friend present his paper in a panel on resource issues. While he was listening, he saw a state security official, he was not sure from which branch, photographing the conference participants and slides about the NCPO and military. This was improper conference behavior. In addition, there were villagers who came to listen to the panel and translation headsets were prepared for them. The officials went to stand close to the translators and spoke on their mobile telephones. They interrupted the translators and created noise in the back of the room that disturbed the panel.
Teeramon noted that he could not stay in the room because it was too full. He had seen the “An Academic Conference is Not a Military Barracks” sign before and took a photograph of it as a humorous remembrance. His view is that the phrase did not create a negative image of the NCPO as has been accused, but he instead understood it as an informative phrase with a meaning specific to ICTS. As far as holding up three fingers to mean “Freedom, Equality, Solidarity”: these three ideas are part of the culture and values of the academic community. Everyone has an equal right to express her/his opinion.
Teeramon stated that we must understand the context of the conference in order to interpret the photograph and the message. The actions of the officials were inappropriate in that context. The soldiers could have presented papers or research during the academic conference. But investigating and monitoring was inappropriate behavior for an academic conference.
Teeramon noted that he agreed with Defendant No.4 that being prosecuted in this case is a source of pride for him. He does not view his actions as a crime and is willing to follow the process to prove his innocence.
“In this time of political crisis, we need diverse information, news, knowledge and opinions in order to lead Thai society into the future. At the heart of this is freedom of expression and academic freedom. Both are guaranteed in the constitution. Things like this cannot take place. If the state monitors, shuts down, controls and threatens us like this, including the prosecution of cases, it will only destroy the image and reputation of the NCPO government.”