Two Thai academics accused of defying junta’s ban of political gathering submitted statement to police

On 24 December 2015 at 14:00, two academics from Chiang Mai University, Prof. Dr. Attachak Sattayanurak and Assoc. Prof. Somchai Preechasilpakul, appeared at the Changpuak police station in Chaing Mai to submit their written statement of no-guilty plea in defense of charges filed against them for allegedly violating the Head of National Council for Peace and Order’s (NCPO) Order No.3/2015 prohibiting any political gathering of five or more persons.

In October 2015, a military officer filed charges against them for allegedly violating the NCPO ban of political gathering due to a press conference on ‘The University is Not Military Camp’ organised by a group of academics called ‘The Network of University’s Academics’ at a hotel in Chiang Mai.

According to the submitted statement, the two academics denied all charges and firmly insisted that the academic press conference was an exercise of the right to freedom of expression and was, in fact, the innovative exercise of academic freedom. Their action was in accordance with the spirit of laws and constitution, and was an expression of opinions in good faith to promote a democratic regime. Thus, the accused appealed to the police to make a non-prosecution opinion to drop the case.

Further, the accused academics requested police to investigate more witnesses to support their defence which include Prof. Dr. Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, Prof. Surichai Wankaew, Assistant. Prof. Dr. Jantajira Iummayura, and Dr. Tyrell Haberkorn.

The two academics could face a jail-term of no more than 6 months and/or fine of 10,000 THB, if found guilty by the Chaing Mai Military Court, under the Head of the NCPO Order No. 3/2015 (12)*.

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A summary of the accused’s statement submitted to the inquiry officers of the Chang Puak Police Station

24 December 2015

We, Prof. Dr. Attachak Sattayanurak, faculty member of the Department of History, Faculty of Humanities, Chiang Mai University, the first alleged offender, and Assoc. Prof. Somchai Preechasilpakul, faculty member of Faculty of Law, Chiang Mai University, the second alleged offender, plead not guilty to all charges as per the previous pleading and would like to submit further written opinions for your consideration.

(1) The release of the public statement on “Intellectual Freedom in the Education System” was not deliberately made or organized to exclusively in response to the government. It was a proceeding as a result of the meeting among researchers in the research project on “Changes in Rural Sector: Democracy on the Move” funded by the Thailand Research Fund (TRF). The meeting as such had been conducted a few times and a plenary meeting for the presentation of research works in the past two years was to be held on 21 and 22 November 2015. In order to prepare for the plenary meeting, a preparatory meeting was called in Chiang Mai on 31 October 2015.

Based on the existing evidence, it corroborates that the two of us, as researchers, had no intent to congregate exclusively to launch the statement. Rather, it was part of the research project and the issues raised in the statement were in direct response to the statement made by the Prime Minister on 27 October 2015, the incident of which took place after the preparatory meeting had already been scheduled.

It was known publicly that the Prime Minister told the press that he had instructed the Minister of Education to review the school teaching since “some teachers or lecturers tend to teach and instigate more conflicts in society. This is not something to do. The teaching must be geared toward imparting respect of the laws and the rules, respect in what is righteous and legitimate. There should not always be just resistance to everything. It’s fine to teach people to think freely, but it has to be good and decent thinking as well.” He ended his interview by saying “(I) have no idea how could they think that way.”

When all members of the research team met the evening of 30 October 2015, an exchange was made and it was agreed by there was a concern that the speaking and the speech by the Prime Minister would have led to misunderstanding in public regarding the teaching in university. And it was agreed that a statement would be released the next day.

All members of the research team are faculty members and have been serving society as public intellectuals. We have done action research to help people and have been public intellectuals to raise social awareness about the problems and possible solutions. Most importantly, the research project “Changes in Rural Sector: Democracy on the Move” is an attempt to explore changes that have taken place in the rural sector and how they have contributed to the movement for democratization. It aims to identify how tolerance of different opinions has led local communities to get more engaged in the democratization process and an attempt to study action research in each of the project sites. All in all, it aims to instill tolerance and acceptance of dissents and diverse opinions.

The statement, if carefully viewed, contains no contents which could be construed as an act to “incite” or “instigate” an unrest or to “insult” anyone. Rather, it bears a brazen intention to explain to society as to which ideal teaching should be in a higher education system in order to ensure progress of Thai society. As public intellectuals, all researchers in this project fervently look forward to eliciting understanding in society regarding the roles and meaning of academia to society and therefore collectively expressed themselves through the launch of the statement.

 

 

(2) The importance of academic freedom and how it is related to the research work.

As faculty members who are supposed to promote learning process and to encourage the exploration for further wisdom in society, we realize the importance of freedom which is a key factor since knowledge is always subjected to dynamisms and changes incessantly and new knowledge has to be acquired to enable us to stay ahead of the changing situation. Freedom is pivotally important to social progress based on the following reasons.

First, “freedom” is a fundamental factor that gives rise to the accumulation of knowledge. The expression of ideas from different viewpoints or methodologies based on factual information and rationality shall eventually elicit a new understanding. It shall make humans and society become more knowledgeable and have more wisdom to deal with and confront the fasting changing and complicated world more effectively.

Therefore, the teaching by a large number of lecturers in universities is not geared toward rote learning or instilling the unchallengeable doctrines or ideologies. Histories from Thai society itself and elsewhere teach us that the indoctrination or instilling of a dominant ‘dogma’ or ‘belief’ in a society tends to subjugate members of the society to a particular structure of power. Such predicament allows particular groups of individuals to gain the most benefits and may resort to the use of violence or even the slaughter of other members in the society who refuse to accept such structure of power. Therefore, a large number of lecturers are aware of the importance of the nurturing of different and critical ideas in society since it allows people in society to think by themselves and nurture the respect and compassion as well as tolerance toward people who may think differently from us.

Second, in a globalized Thai society whereby people tend to adopt various ways of life and opinions, the use of power to force people to adopt the same practice could only bring about peacefulness temporarily. It shall not lead the society toward genuine and lasting peace. The acquisition of consensus on matters and the legitimacy of the use of power have to rest on the debates using the knowledge, reasons, rationale and facts and it has to be conducted in the climate in which everyone is treated equally and provided with freedom in a democratic system.

As faculty members from various universities working in the same research project, we share the opinion that in order to help to overcome conflicts in society and to bring about peace, equality and justice in the long run, it is important that an effort be made to nurture tolerance toward different opinions, the process to resolve conflicts in a fair and accountable manner and the impartial and transparent legal and judiciary systems.

By standing firm to uphold the right to freedom of expression as stated, we wanted to encourage mutual consideration and exchange among various parties regardless if they share or differ in their opinions. Therefore, the expression of opinions based on the rationality and understanding as demonstrated by the group of lecturers cannot be construed as an act of incitement or instigation to elicit unrest or public disorder. Rather, the aim of the released public statement was to engender the listening, exchange and peaceful debate of various reasons and knowledge. Nothing whatsoever in the content of the statement should be understood as an attempt to call for resistance to the state power or to propagate a political assembly.

The content of the statement on “Intellectual Freedom in the Education System” simply reflects a yearning to promote the right to freedom of academic expression and its importance in the teaching process to engender free debate and exchange based on reasons among parties with different opinions. It is a basic principle upheld around the around the world and in higher education institutions which are supposed to nurture wisdom. The upholding of such freedom by the group of faculty members was therefore the reiteration of the most fundamental and legitimate principle universally recognized. The principle has been respected and accepted as the fundamental right and freedom of people of all groups.

The research project “Changes in Rural Sector: Democracy on the Move” has also shed light on major findings including the changes in democratization process among rural communities in various parts of the country chosen for the study. These communities have shown their awareness and acceptance of opinions and their desire to learn and operationalize the sound democratic foundation. The findings from each of the communities and the shared learning experience among the research team members under this project have prompted all research team members and other lecturers to launch the statement.

 

 

(3) The two of us would like to give evidence that the statement by us and the network of faculty members on “Intellectual Freedom in the Education System” was an exercise of the right to freedom of expression recognized by the Constitution and is not a wrongful act as alleged.

3.1 The two of us reiterates the nature of teaching in university and how the aforementioned principle upholds the right to academic freedom. Without prejudice, one would find the statement reflects genuinely the intent of the two of us as it was clearly expressed in the statement. Its content simply reflects the expression of academic opinions and nothing in there can be taken as an attempt to incite or instigate people to demonstrate or congregate for political purpose. Nothing in its content calls for political demonstration or the appointment for political assembly at all.

In addition, the content of the statement was simply the expression of academic opinions and people in society may or may not believe in it depending on their personal discretion and belief. The two of us have not in whatsoever manners made an attempt to persuade people to believe in the statement. And in fact, after the launch of the statement, there did not appear to be any political demonstrations or assemblies that had taken place by individuals or groups of individuals as a result of the statement released by us.

 

3.2 The two of us deem that the statement “Intellectual Freedom in the Education System” contains no content which could be found in violation of the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) Order No. 3/2015 with amendment in the Order No. 5/2015, No. 12 in conjunction with 3(4).

Since the expression of opinions toward public by the two of us and the network of faculty members could not be construed as a political demonstration or assembly, but rather an academic activity which is a conventional practice and an important mission of academics in Thailand who want to make them socially engaged. Thus, what we have done was not a public assembly and no one else was allowed to participate in the activity. In addition, the venue where the launch of the statement took place was a privately owned area, not a public property. The media was allowed there simply to help disseminate our opinions and information made by academics like us to public. After the press conference was over, there was no further action made which could lead to an unrest or a public assembly to disrupt public order. The act of the two of us therefore contained no criminal elements as alleged.

Should our activity be interpreted as an unlawful political demonstration or public assembly, it would have affected a number of academic activities which are organized to emanate the accumulation of wisdom and to solve problems in society including public discussion, symposium, public speech, research presentation, capacity building for communities on various issues around the country. Such activities would also be held as unlawful and disallowed. In such case, grave and unmeasurable damage shall be inflicted on Thai society, at present and in future. And it would not be the desirable results of any legitimate laws. Given the recognition and protection of academic freedom enshrined in the Thai Constitutions 1997 and 2007, or even the current Interim Constitution in its Section 4 which provides for the right, it would then be clear that the act of the two of us to express ourselves to public was simply the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in good faith according to the Constitution. Since the act of the two of us could not constitute a wrongful act as alleged, it could not be criminalized.

3.3 When the incident took place, the offences regarding political assembly as per the Head of the NCPO Order No. 3/2015 (12) were no longer effective, since the 2015 Public Assembly Act had already become effective and would result in the annulation of the older legal provision. Therefore, when the incident happened, it would be subjected to the enforcement of the 2015 Public Assembly Act and the act of the two of us was not an offence as per the 2015 Public Assembly Act.

Both the Head of the NCPO Order No. 3/2015 (12) regarding public assembly and the 2015 Public Assembly Act contain provisions concerning public assembly. Since the laws have been promulgated by the state to restrict the right to freedom of assembly, the newer law would result in the annulation of the older law.

The right to freedom of assembly is recognized in the Constitution and the constitutional convention under a democratic regime of government with the King as the Head of State. The restriction of the right to freedom of assembly can only be done as provided for by law only. Previously, the Head of the NCPO Order No. 3/2015 (12) authorized the draconian suppression of political assembly. But when the 2015 Public Assembly Act was promulgated afterward and since it contains provisions which similarly restrict the right to freedom of assembly, but only for public assembly, therefore, the other forms of assembly cannot be held liable as per the 2015 Public Assembly Act.

Article 4 of the 2015 Public Assembly Act states that “Public assembly” means a gathering of individuals in public property to demand, or to support, or to oppose, or to express any opinion on any particular things amongst general public and any other persons are allowed to participate in the assembly, whether or not the assembly involves demonstration or procession. And according to the definition in paragraph two of the same Article, “Public property” means land or any infrastructure owned by the state and is meant to be dedicated to public use or reserved for common good or any land not owned, but possessed or utilized by state agencies, and land in which any individual has the right to use it including public highway”.

Since the statement was launched at the IBIS Hotel, which was a private property, not a public property as defined above, the act of the two of us could not be liable as per the 2015 Public Assembly Act.

 

(4) The act of the two of us was simply the exercise of the right to freedom of expression recognized by the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Thailand has acceded and thereby has to act in compliance.

The right to freedom of expression and peaceful and unarmed assembly has been recognized in Thailand’s Constitutions from 1947 until the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (Interim), B.E. 2557 (2014)’s Section 4 which states that all human dignity, rights, liberties and equality of the people protected by the constitutional convention under a democratic regime of government with the King as the Head of State, and by international obligations bound by Thailand, shall be protected and upheld by this Constitution. Thailand has become a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) since 1996 and is thus obliged to act in its compliance.

 

(5) In the international context, a public assembly essentially means an assembly that takes place in a public space which is assessable to by a large number of people. This notion, however, fails markedly to match with the circumstance in which the statement of the network of lecturers was taken place.

Therefore, we two would like to reiterate that the act of the two of us was an exercise of the right to academic freedom creatively to nurture peace and reconciliation in society. The act genuinely served the purpose of the laws and the Constitution and was an expression of opinion and criticism in good faith. It would help to promote democracy and would be part of an effort to reduce tension in social forging the climate inductive to reconciliation.

Amidst the present situation, if the justice mechanisms hold on to the principle of law and human rights, particularly the safeguard of the rights of an alleged offender and an accused in a criminal suit, it would give an impression to public that the law enforcement officers continue to uphold justice for all concerned parties, equally and without partiality. This will certainly increase confidence in the law enforcement officers and the justice process and will encourage more participation to collectively defuse the tension and conflicts at present bringing about the chance to effectively forge reconciliation beneficial to all parties. Therefore, the inquiry officer is hereby asked to consider withdrawing the charges against the two of us to ensure compliance with the Constitution, the laws and international human rights obligations to which Thailand is obliged.

 

* The Head of the NCPO Order No. 3/2015, Article 12 states that any political gathering of five or more persons shall be punished with imprisonment not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding ten thousand Baht, or both, unless permission has been granted by the Head of the NCPO. or an authorized representative.

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