Thai university riled by lecturers' criticism of government

AP News
Posted: Feb 28, 2017 6:28 AM

BANGKOK (AP) — Rights groups are urging a university to drop an investigation of a group of lecturers who criticized Thailand's military junta, calling the university's response an attack on free speech and academic freedom.

A group of faculty members at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies of Thailand's Mahidol University on Saturday denounced the military government's repeated use of a measure that grants it broad powers to search property and make arrests deemed necessary to enforce public order and unity. Article 44 was included in a temporary constitution after the army seized power in a 2014 coup.

University administrators said Sunday the statement had damaged the state university's reputation and was not an exercise of academic freedom and that its signers would be investigated.

"Mahidol University is doing the junta's dirty work by repressing critical academics voicing their opinions," Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in statement issued Tuesday. "As one of Thailand's leading educational institutions, Mahidol University should be a showcase for academic freedom and free speech rather than supporting the punishment of dissenting voices on campus."

A Thai group on Monday also criticized the university.

"University administrators should not resort to the use of threats," said a statement issued by the Thai Academics for Civil Rights. It said the human rights institute "is showing the dangers of using a power which lacks checks and balance... it has shown academic courage, which should be encouraged and protected."

Professor Gothom Arya, a veteran social activist and adviser to the institute who helped draft the statement, said Article 44 is intended to be used by the prime minister only when truly necessary, but was instead being used "for anything and everything," nine times in 27 days.

"It is overused, unnecessary, and against the rule of law," he said.

The timing of the statement may have disturbed the government, as it came after Article 44 was invoked to help police to raid the headquarters temple of a Buddhist sect controversial for its immense wealth and influence. The Dhammakaya sect has tried to mobilize public opinion in its defense, campaigning especially for the use of Article 44 against it to be withdrawn.

The authorities remain in a standoff at the temple north of Bangkok, with police vowing to stay until they arrest the sect's leader, who's wanted in connection with accepting embezzled funds as donations.