Student Union of Thailand spokesperson Panusaya 'Rung' Sithijirawattanakul (left) speaks beside activist Parit 'Penguin' Chiwarak during a press conference by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration at Thammasat University in Bangkok on Sept. 9. (Photo: AFP)
Thai authorities are leaning on university administrators to ensure that student protesters will stop calling for reform of the monarchy in a heavy-handed move that is seen as a violation of academic freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.
The military-allied government has reportedly told provincial governors to warn the heads of various colleges and universities that if students continue to advocate for political change involving the monarchy, violence could ensue in what many observers see as a veiled threat about an impending crackdown.
“University administrators should create understanding with the students on this and should put a stop to the demands on the monarchy,” Senator Somchai Sawangkarn told Reuters news agency on Sept. 13.
“We did not tell the governors to block the protests but we want them to create understanding with university officials, especially on the 10 demands for the monarchy.”
At many of the almost daily youth-led pro-democracy protests that have been taking place around Thailand since early July, protest leaders have been openly calling for reform of the Thai political structure.
Several of their demands call for limiting the influence of the monarchy, which protesters say wields excessive political and economic power, even though Thailand is supposed to be a constitutional monarchy.
Members of the royal family are accorded semi-divine status, with commoners expected to prostrate themselves in their presence, and any criticism of them is punishable by law with long prison sentences.
The Royal Thai Army staged its two latest coups, in 2006 and 2014, against democratically elected governments by citing the need to defend the monarchy from politicians seeking to overthrow the institution, although no evidence was produced to substantiate these claims.
In letters sent to provincial governors last week, authorities have warned that any discussion of the monarchy at pro-democracy protests “is a sensitive matter that could lead to violence.”
The warning has come ahead of a planned student-led mass protest at Bangkok’s prestigious Thammasat University on Sept. 19.
In 1976 dozens, and possibly hundreds, of students at the same university were lynched, shot and murdered by right-wing royalists and army troops during a pro-democracy protest after students had been accused of mocking Maha Vajiralongkorn, who was then crown prince and is now king.
Several protest leaders have said that they will refuse to be cowed by the veiled threats and continue to voice their opinions at upcoming pro-democracy protests.
“[The authorities] are using this tactic to try to suppress and threaten people,” Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, 21, a prominent student leader, told Reuters.
Nearly three dozen protest leaders, including Panusaya, have been charged in recent weeks with sedition and other crimes over their calls for political reform. If convicted, they could face years in prison.
Prominent rights advocates have defended the students’ right to present all their demands freely without interference from the authorities.
“Freedom of expression should not be truncated just because the topic of the monarchy comes up,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, has stressed.
“Governments aren’t permitted to violate human rights just because they unilaterally designate a particular issue as somehow ‘sensitive.
“The students should be able to discuss, debate and put forward their demands as they see fit, and the government should not unilaterally dismiss them just because they are not happy with what the students want.”