Choked to death: free speech in grip of Thailand’s strongmen

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Last month, seven Nobel laureates put their names on a petition to Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s oldest, censuring it for its disciplinary action against students who staged a walkout at a heavily royalist initiation ceremony held on August 3, 2017.

Left unmentioned was what happened during the protest: Pictures and videos taken at the scene when the students were filing out showed one burly male lecturer charging the line and, in a move straight out of professional wrestling, putting one lanky student in a chokehold and dragging him away. The physical violence was matched only by the curses and profanity coming out of the assailant’s mouth.

Commotion on social media forced the university to act. But what it triggered wasn’t immediate ostracization of the man; instead, we witnessed a closing of ranks done so tightly and expertly that it rivaled some of the best performed by Thailand’s current military regime.

Statement after statement from the university fudged the facts, placing blame squarely on the students, especially their leader, for flouting regulations. A formal investigation was ordered, a committee was formed, yet there was never any doubt whose side the administrators took.

Only after much hemming and hawing did we learn, half a year later, that what the man got was a slap on the wrist – an “unspecified salary cut.” The students, by way of point reduction under a demerit system, were barred from participating in future student activities – not overly severe, but considering what Professor Enforcer received, the difference spoke volumes.

The incident was little known outside Thailand, though it offered a glimpse of the dynamic of a country that, under prolonged political instability, had been looking inward and becoming increasingly mistrustful. In most other places, the response would have been swift and decisive: That lecturer would have been dismissed and charged with assault. But our antagonist not only wasn’t fired, he was given a hero’s treatment: In a moment of tragic irony, university chiefs showed up in force to lend him moral support at the university hospital where he was admitted for stress that very night.

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, the student leader, had been well known as a voice of the left, an outspoken critic of the military dictatorship, and a source of irritation to many conservatives. In the crosshairs of officialdom well before this fracas occurred, he was likened to Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong student activist who was persecuted by the Chinese authorities but elicited sympathy from the public.

Thailand’s divisive, bifurcated national politics, centering on attitudes toward Thaksin Shinawatra, permeates every aspect of society, leaving no room for complex social and political discussions

Authorities in Thailand, too, wanted Netiwit silenced, but were more restrained by the facade of democratic rule of law promoted by the generals. Unlike those in Hong Kong, the Thai authorities were helped by the fact that Netiwit probably drew as much ire as he drew support from the people, if not more.

Thailand has never recovered from the unrest that erupted when prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed by a coup a decade ago. Its divisive, bifurcated national politics, centering on attitudes toward Thaksin, permeates every aspect of society, leaving no room for complex social and political discussions.

Denouncing people as sympathizers of one camp is enough to make them pariahs to the other, and it is the ease with which this tactic works that makes politics in Thailand so obnoxious. So potent is the stigma that many are afraid to criticize the junta for fear of being branded as one of the Red Shirts, supporters of Thaksin whose movement has been smothered by the military.

In Netiwit’s case, the establishment found it too easy to cast him as an agent of the Red Shirts, as some of his progressive stances and the Red Shirts’ agendas aligned, making him even more of a controversial figure. Divided public opinion of Netiwit explains why the university managed to be partisan without prompting a backlash.

This sort of petition backing Netiwit wasn’t the first – renowned scholars including Noam Chomsky signed one last year – but given the university’s total indifference to international pressure, it could be the last.

Since 1912, Thailand has seen 21 coups, one every five years on average. Coups happen so frequently that experiencing one first-hand is almost a rite of passage.

One year after the coup of 1991, I entered Chulalongkorn in the summer of 1992 as a freshman amid mass protest and a military crackdown that left scores of people dead. At that time, the current initiation ceremony, a heavily royalist affair where students prostrate on the ground in front of statues of two past kings and pledge their allegiance, did not exist. Neither did the fascist-tinged points system that serves no purpose other than to ensure conformity.

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