1. The challenge of academic freedom at the “Thai Studies Forum”
After 10 postponements within one year of pre-trial inquiry appointments, on 4th July 2018, the public prosecutor in Chiang Mai formally indicted five accused: Dr. Chayan Wattanaputi, Ms. Pakawadee Weerapaspong, Mr. Nontawat Machai, Mr. Chaiyapong Samnieng, and Mr. Teeramon Bua-ngam in the Chiang Mai Municipal Court on charges of violating the Head of the NCPO Order no. 3/B.E. 2558 (2015), which prohibits any gathering of five or more persons for political purposes. If the court finds them guilty, they will be imprisoned up to six months and fined up to 10,000 baht each.This is due to the fact that they were accused of organizing and participating in an academic conference, namely, the “International Conference on Thai Studies” or “Thai Studies Forum” as an abbreviation. This academic conference is an international forum, which is hosted by universities located in different countries. The core purpose of the conference is to present academic views related to Thailand’s history and modern society. This conference appeals to academics, university students and interested people to propose and present their papers to an academic community. At least 150 individuals have normally joined this conference every three years since Delhi University initially hosted it in 1981.
Last year, on 15-18 July 2017, Chiang Mai University was responsible to arrange the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies, at the Chiang Mai International Exhibition and Convention Centre. During the session of 17 July 2017, at least 176 participants from the academic community across world gathered and made a statement calling on the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta currently ruling Thailand, to restore fundamental rights, liberties, and academic freedom in Thailand. People who assembled in front of a seminar room further stated that the junta should release political prisoners and immediately reform the judiciary procedure, including the structure of army.
Moreover, since the conference had been organized, many government officials, without giving permission or being registered, entered to the seminar room, photographed attendees, as well as recorded every activity by speakers or participants. Therefore, on 18 July 2017, activists and university students held a sign up in front of the seminar room and venue, which read that “an academic forum is not a military camp”, and took a photo.
After the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies finished, local media revealed an official letter issued by the Lieutenant Governor of Chiang Mai Mr. Puttipong Sirimat, which had been submitted to the Permanent Secretary for Interior, stating that six participants including an academic and activists held a sign up reading “an academic forum is not a military camp” and took a photo in front of a seminar room and venue. This letter, dated 18 July 2017, said that Chiang Mai’s Peace and Order Maintenance Command would invite three academics to discuss the matter with the authorities and might ask them not to participate in political activity. However, no action had been taken after the letter was released.
2.Summons sent to five participants
A month after the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies had been arranged, some of the suspects received summons dated 11 August 2017, issued by Chang Phueak police in Chiang Mai province. The summons detailed that they had to report to inquiry officials on 15 August 2017 due to the violation of the Head of National Council for Peace and Order No.3/2558  which bans gatherings of five or more persons for a political purpose.
The five recipients of summons were as follows:
3. Five participants acknowledged the accusation under HNCPO Order No.3/2558
On 21 August and on 1 September 2017, Dr. Chayan Wattanaputi, Ms. Pakawadee Weerapaspong, Mr. Nontawat Machai, Mr. Chaiyapong Samnieng, and Mr. Teeramon Bua-ngam, reported to Chang Phueak police station in Chiang Mai province.
The inquiry officer Pol Lt Col Inthorn Kaewnan informed the five that they were accused by Capt Eakkaphon Kaewsiri of putting up signs reading “an academic forum is not a military camp” on the wall at Chiang Mai International Exhibition and Convention Centre and taking photos with them during the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies in Chiang Mai province on 18 July 2017. Such action constitutes an incitement to public order and a political gathering. As a result, the suspects were charged with Head of the NCPO Order No.3/2558 , which bans gatherings of five persons or more for a political purpose.
However, the inquiry officer informed the suspects of another option. Reportedly, if they were to participate in a program organized by law enforcement, and authorities saw fit to release them within seven days with or without charges, the case would be closed. All five suspects denied all charges and refused to participate in the program, and stated that they would submit a written statement later. The five later submitted a written statement at Chang Puak police station on 1 September 2017.
It was interesting to note that, before the day they reported in response to the summons, statements by at least 70 organizations and petitions with 1,700 signatures in support of the accused had been issued and published by the academic community, human rights organizations, and media. They not only expressed grave concern about the situation of academic freedom in Thailand but also demanded the Thai government to immediately dismiss the case against the five.
4. Statement submitted to the inquiry official
On 1 September 2017, the five accused submitted a written statement to the inquiry official at Chang Phueak police station in Chiang Mai province. They denied the allegation against them. The details were as follows.
- Firstly, regarding the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies organized in Chiang Mai province during 15-18 July 2017, the five participated and took responsibility in different roles. Dr. Chayan Wattanaputi was an organizer who communicated with international scholars while Ms. Pakawadee Weerapaspong, Mr. Nontawat Machai, and Mr. Teeramon Bua-ngam were speakers presenting on their own papers during the conference. In addition, Mr. Chaiyapong Samnieng and Mr. Nontawat Machai also associated with Dr. Chayan Wattanaputi in order to ensure all activities arranged by Chiang Mai University had been continually processed. All also clarified their registration status and had clearly labels with their names while the conference was running.
- Secondly, the allegations concerned the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Those actions certainly had not incited public immorality or caused public unrest. In contrast, their actions were to promote and protect the right to academic freedom, which is guaranteed by the 2017 Constitution of Thailand. In addition, Thailand as the signatory state of International Covenant on Civil Rights and Political Rights should fully recognize this right.
- Thirdly, while the alleged incident occurred on 18 July 2017, there had been no enforcement of the HNCPO No.3/2558 due its enforcement was legally replaced with the 2015 Public Assembly Act.
5. Case file submitted to the public prosecutor
On 11 September, Dr. Chayan Wattanaputi, Ms. Pakawadee Weerapaspong, Mr. Teeramon Bua-ngam, Mr. Nontawat Machai, and Mr. Chaiyapong Samnieng reported to the inquiry officer at Chang Phueak police station in Chiang Mai province to submit the case file to the public prosecutor at Chiang Mai District Prosecutor’s Office. The five submitted a petition letter to the public prosecutor requesting an order to have the inquiry officer further investigate witnesses previously listed by the suspects.
On 15 September, the five reported to the Prosecutor’s Office again. Mr. Montri Namkhan, the public prosecutor responsible for this case, allegedly invited only Dr. Chayan Wattanaputi to a talk with Head of the Intelligence Unit at the 33rd Army Circle Col Surasak Suksaeng. The talk lasted one hour and a half; the details of the talk were not disclosed. In addition, the public prosecutor stated that the case file would be submitted to the Office of the Attorney-General, Region V, for deliberation, and that the inquiry officer would further investigate the witnesses listed by the suspects.
On 21 September, the five reported to the Prosecutor’s Office a further time. The public prosecutor claimed that the case file was pending consideration at the Office of the Attorney General, Region V, and that the inquiry officer had further examined two witnesses of five listed by the accused. The accused were scheduled to report again at Chiang Mai District Prosecutor’s Office on 24 October 2017.
Curiously, the five found that there were plainclothes officers taking their photos, recording their voices and filming them in every appointment scheduled by the public prosecutor. Moreover, government officers working at the Prosecutor’s Office further stated that military officials usually monitored the process of this case by visiting their office or calling them.
6.Indictment in Chiang Mai Municipal Court
On 4 July 2018, the public prosecutor formally indicted the five accused in the Chiang Mai Municipal Court on charges of violating the Head of the NCPO Order No. 3/B.E. 2558 (2015) which prohibits any gathering of five or more persons for political purposes. After the indictment, the Court released them after they took an oath to report themselves as required by the court, without having to place any bail deposit. The next hearing is scheduled for 20 August 2018 at 9.00am.
Annexes: Timeline of the case proceedings (dated 25 July 2018)