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Police investigate lecturer accused of lèse-majesté

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Thai police are investigating a university lecturer for allegedly insulting the monarchy through examination questions he set on Thai civilisation.

Asst. Prof. Boonsong Chaisinghanon, who teaches philosophy at Silpakorn University, had asked students to debate, among other things, the role of the monarchy in a democratic system and the effects of militarism and bureaucratic policies.

A 2006 paper asked: "How does the 'yellow shirt fever' reflect problems in Thai society? Are they problems that need to be tackled and [if so] how?"

(The "yellow shirt fever" refers to the phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of Bangkok residents wearing yellow shirts almost every day, especially on Mondays, to reflect their love and loyalty to King Bhumibol Adulyadej - yellow being the traditional colour marking Monday, the day the King was born.)

For his efforts to stimulate critical thinking in his students, Boonsong was issued a 16 July 2007 memo from the acting dean of the Arts Faculty, Asst. Prof. Maneepin Promsudhirak, asking for copies of his examination papers, the answer sheets and scores since 2005, to be handed over to Muang District police in Nakhon Pathom province. The documents will form the basis of a police decision to charge Boonsong with lèse-majesté, which carries a prison term of three to 15 years.

Boonsong was given until 20 July to comply. He has refused to turn over the papers.

In an interview with web-based daily "Prachatai" ( http://www.prachatai.com/english/news.php?id=111 ), Boonsong defended the questions as necessary for students and citizens alike "to come to terms with various phenomena in society, as they reflect what is going on, the social structure and power interaction of various groups. All these issues are critically important for education. . .".

Students should be able to ask questions and be critical in order to develop their own wisdom and become model citizens, he maintained.

Boonsong believes that vengeful peers whom he had criticised for lacking transparency and integrity initiated the police investigation against him.

He had faced a similar accusation in late 2006, when a colleague lodged a complaint with Culture Minister Khunying Khaisri Saengarun, claiming Boonsong and another lecturer's teachings slandered the monarch. University authorities later cleared both of the accusation.

Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a September 2006 coup, had frequently invoked the lèse majesté charge to silence his critics.

That the law is now being considered against a member of academia who was merely exercising his responsibility as an educator "indicates that attempts to use the lèse-majesté charge as a tool to impede freedom of expression among Thai people still exist, and have now encroached into the academic realm," said Midnight University, an informal, web-based public intellectual network initiated by prominent scholars from Chiang Mai University.

In an online petition it created in support of Boonsong, Midnight University called the police investigation "an unprecedented . . . threat to academic freedom".

Boonsong's university, in not standing up for the very freedom that defines the purpose of an institution of higher learning, but worse, cooperating with the police to incriminate him, has failed not only a staff member who recognises the importance of this freedom but also society, whose wisdom is enabled by it.

As Thais prepare to vote on a new constitution on 19 August to pave the way for the election of a new government, the interim junta-appointed authorities will do well to demonstrate their recognition of free expression as a cornerstone of democracy. They can start by dropping the police investigation against Asst. Prof. Boonsong Chaisinghanon.

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