Anusorn Unno is a Thai academic on a mission to protect the sanctity of the university as a place where young people and intellectuals can thrive in a climate of free speech and free thought.
Anusorn and some of his fellow academics are trying to do this against a backdrop of fear in the nation after the Thai military toppled a civilian-led government last year.
People from all walks of life now are afraid to speak their minds. Since it seized power in May 2014, the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta is known, has clamped down on free speech and gone after journalists and critics of its rule, among others.
In April, the junta declared absolute power for itself by invoking Article 44 of the interim constitution. That gives the military the power to enforce sweeping powers over civilians, human rights groups have warned.
The authorities now have the power to arrest groups of five or more people who take part in anti-government protests. Students have been arrested under Article 44 for taking part in such activities.
Anusorn and his colleagues hope to change that. The assistant professor of anthropology at Bangkok’s Thammasat University and dean of its Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology coordinates a group of fellow academics – or ajarn, as they are known in Thai – that calls itself the Thai Academics for Civil Rights.
Its mission, he says, is to champion the right of students and academics in Thailand to express themselves freely. In an interview with BenarNews, conducted via email, he elaborated on how academic freedom has come under threat since the generals took over his country’s leadership.
BN: What is the aim of the Academic Network for Detained Students?
Anusorn: The group was “officially” formed on June 30, 2015 … to provide help and support for students detained for “political gatherings” under the military regime.
[Our] first statement demanded that the students be released immediately and unconditionally.
BN: You recently led an effort among university lecturers for a petition asking the government to end suppression of academic freedom and independence. What has been the impact of this?
Anusorn: There was no change in the government’s policy regarding this. [Thai Prime Minister] Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha gave an interview … and said he could not guarantee safety for university lecturers if someone disagreed with them and shot or bombed them. …
BN: Why is the military government concerned about what goes on at universities, in your view?
Anusorn: It is primarily because “university” is a place that the military government is unable to put under control totally.
Or, to put it in Althusser’s words, the university is not a place that the military government can use as an ideological state apparatus like schools and other institutions.
On the contrary, it is a place where resistance takes place. On the one hand, the university is a place where thinking and criticism are encouraged. Hence, a threat to any attempt to monopolize truth.
On the other hand, it is a place where people (in this case students) get together and do activities other than study (without being specifically recruited and organized). It is almost impossible for the government to monitor all activities at universities.
BN: Has the junta’s challenge to academic freedom been widely implemented or focused on only a few universities? Which universities have been targeted, and why?
Anusorn: The challenge has taken place nationwide. The difference is that small universities in the provinces are more likely to be threatened than the major ones in Bangkok.
This is about power relations; major universities in Bangkok – given their size, histories, and being in the spotlight – have more bargaining power than small ones in the provinces.
BN: Has the government sent people to sit in on any classes, asked for any classes to be shut down, or have ajarn been asked to alter their teaching?
Anusorn: So far, the government has not sent its people to sit in on regular classes.
Soldiers and policemen came when students and academics held seminars and activities deemed politically dangerous. In addition, they demanded that the organizers get their permission first.
However, there has been an attempt to intervene in the curriculum by adding some courses such as “the military and development” to general education courses in some universities.
BN: Will ajarn censor themselves, and will that affect the quality of teaching at Thai universities? Do you think that ajarn will have to start to publishing their work abroad?
Anusorn: Yes, many academics will censor themselves to some extent when it comes to politics, and this will definitely affect the quality of teaching in Thai universities, especially in social sciences and humanities.
However, what is worse is that many – or perhaps more than half of university lecturers – still believe in and trust the military government in its protection of the nation, especially the monarchy.
But this is not a major cause for Thai academics to publish their work abroad; an additional one maybe.
BN: What is next in your efforts on behalf of academic freedom and detained students?
Anusorn: … We changed the group’s name from Academic Network for Detained Students to Thai Academics For Civil Rights to be in line with changing situations and our missions.
In other words, it is not only academic freedom that we protect but also freedom of expression in general.
Also, it is not only detained students that we provide help and support for, but also Thai citizens in general who face legal charges for expressing political viewpoints and launching political actions.