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Thailand

Outspoken American scholar forced to leave Thailand

The case highlights the lack of academic freedom in the Southeast Asian nation

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Published: April 19, 2021 04:50 AM GMT

Updated: April 19, 2021 07:11 AM GMT

Outspoken American scholar forced to leave Thailand

Riot police disperse pro-democracy protesters during an anti-government demonstration in Bangkok on March 20. In recent weeks more than 80 pro-democracy activists have been charged with royal defamation. (Photo: AFP)

Academic freedom, already under attack in Thailand, has come under further strain with what appears to be an attempt to force a prominent and outspoken American scholar to leave the country.

Immigration officials last week decided to terminate the visa and work permit of David Streckfuss, an independent scholar who has lived in Thailand for 35 years and is based in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen.

Khon Kaen University, where Streckfuss has been working as an academic, also terminated his contract, reportedly under pressure from immigration authorities.

Streckfuss, who has a PhD in Southeast Asian history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has been a well-known commentator on Thai current affairs, has been an outspoken critic of the country’s lese majeste, or royal defamation, law whereby even the slightest criticism of the royals or its monarchy as an institution is routinely penalized with long prison sentences.

In recent weeks more than 80 mostly young pro-democracy activists have been charged with royal defamation over statements that they made late last year during street rallies where many participants called for a reform of Thailand’s repressive political structure, including its influential monarchy.

Streckfuss has also been a regular contributor to The Isaan Record, a small independent media outlet with a decidedly pro-democratic bent based in northeastern Thailand, which is known locally as the Isaan region.

I think the regular national security apparatus was thrown a bit off guard by the student movement

In February, he participated in a gathering of local academics, LGBTQ activists and rights advocates in Khon Kaen.

A few days after the meeting, the scholar says he was informed that his university contract and visa would both be cancelled.

“I think it was a number of factors [behind the decision],” Streckfuss, who is married to a local woman and has two children with her, said in an interview with a Thai journalist streamed on Facebook.

“I think the regular national security apparatus was thrown a bit off guard by the student movement [calling for political change] and The Isaan Record tried to give as much coverage to the student movement as we could,” the academic added.

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That coverage included the government’s heavy-handed strategy to “use the lese majeste law to take care of these ‘unruly’ students,” Streckfuss said.

Several leaders of the student-led pro-democracy movement remain in jail, having been denied bail repeatedly ahead of their trials.

Faced by public outrage among liberal-minded Thais, local authorities may back down against Streckfuss in the end, but the threat against the scholar is likely to have sent a warning to other outspoken academics.

“We definitely have to watch what we say,” a Catholic lecturer from the United States who works at a college in Bangkok told UCA News. “Your best bet is not to comment on [Thai] politics at all.”

Over the past few days, numerous ultra-royalists have launched a vocal online campaign accusing Streckfuss of being a CIA agent — a charge the academic denies — and calling for his deportation.

Academic freedom is a universal right and essential to quality education, teaching and research

When it comes to academic freedom, Thailand languishes at the bottom among 144 countries in a new survey of the Global Public Policy Institute, a Germany-based think tank, and Scholars at Risk, a US-based international network of academic institutions dedicated to the cause of academic freedom.

The Southeast Asian nation is ranked at 140th place, which means that academic freedom in the country is under constant attack or nearly non-existent.

“Academic freedom is a universal right and essential to quality education, teaching and research,” the Global Public Policy Institute notes.

“It is a driver of innovation, enhances the capacity of scholars and students to acquire and generate knowledge, and thereby protects societies’ capacity for self-reflection,” it adds.

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