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Troubles with Thai Studies

By Ilya Garger

As human rights in Thailand deteriorate under a military junta, Harvard is collaborating with key supporters of the recent coup to create a permanent Thai Studies program at the university. These individuals, most prominently former Foreign Ministers Surin Pitsuwan and Surakiart Satirathai, have spearheaded a campaign to raise $6 million for the program, which they have characterized as a means of promoting Thailand’s monarchy and national interests. Professor Michael Herzfeld, who is leading the initiative, wrote in an emailed statement to me that the program would not be tied to specific political interests and Harvard conducts due diligence on its donors. However, by lending credibility to allies of a totalitarian regime and allowing them to use Harvard as a platform, the university is doing Thailand and itself a disservice.

In a Bangkok Post editorial calling on Thailand’s “foreign friends” to support the coup, Surakiart characterized the military takeover—which saw a democratically elected government overthrown and hundreds of activists, academics, and journalists arbitrarily detained—as a benign “reform process.” At a fundraising event I attended in Bangkok last August, Surakiart declared that the Thai Studies at Harvard was intended as “a program to honor the King.” King Bhumibol was born in Cambridge in 1927 when his father was studying public health at Harvard, but he did not bring the city’s progressive values back to Thailand. During his reign, he has supported military dictatorships, endorsed successive coups, and presided over a cult of personality enforced with more than half a century of indoctrination, propaganda, censorship and occasional violence. Criticism of the monarchy is illegal in Thailand, and hundreds have been jailed or prosecuted in recent years for violating the country’s lèse-majesté laws, which are the world’s harshest.

In its eagerness to secure money for the permanent program, which would include a tenured professorship and expand on lectures and courses introduced in 2012 with Foreign Ministry funding, Harvard has played along with Thai royalists. The Harvard Asia Center in 2012 named Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the daughter of King Bhumibol and his possible successor, as a Distinguished Non-Resident Fellow. It is difficult to assess her qualifications because information about the royal family is tightly controlled. Her achievements in academics, languages, music and art have been touted for decades by the monarchy’s PR apparatus, but are little-documented by independent sources. Her fellowship followed the announcement of a recurring annual donation to Harvard from Thailand’s Foreign Ministry, which promotes the monarchy overseas. Since the coup on May 22, neither the princess nor any other members of the royal family have publicly expressed concern over the suspension of Thai citizens' political rights, or the military’s harassment of academics, the media and others who have criticized its abuses.

Most of the Harvard program’s Thai backers are members of a conservative elite—which includes the aristocracy, generals, and wealthy families—that has dominated the country since the 1950s and rolled back reforms enacted after the absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932. This group views growing political participation as a threat to its privileges, and has undermined successive elected governments through its influence over courts, appointed bodies and the armed forces. Most recently, the conservative establishment supported militant street protests that provided a pretext for last month’s coup, and subsequently threw its weight behind the royally-endorsed junta now ruling Thailand. Surin was a prominent public voice rationalizing the actions of mobs (led by stalwarts of his ironically named Democrat Party) that stormed government offices, physically obstructed elections, and agitated for a coup. Surakiart and Surin have been mentioned as potential Prime Ministers in an upcoming military-appointed administration.

While the junta claims its goal is to restore order, its main agenda has been purging allies of elected former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and promoting the interests of the monarchy and its elite associates. The military government has suppressed critical discussion of the monarchy (even targeting people’s Facebook activity), intensified propaganda glorifying the king and his family, and initiated changes to the education system to further promote royalism and nationalism. The Foreign Ministry, a conservative and aristocratic stronghold, has even attempted to stifle criticism of the coup at foreign universities.

At the Harvard fundraiser I attended in Bangkok last August, Surin used the word “beachhead” to describe the envisioned role of the Thai Studies program. His choice of a word with military and strategic connotations is significant. Having overthrown a series of elected governments and facing growing criticism from cold-war allies, the conservative establishment is working hard to rebuild its legitimacy abroad, and setting up a program at Harvard would be an important victory. Surin announced donations from several tycoons, and said he was seeking funding for the program from the King’s Crown Property Bureau, which manages the monarch’s wealth of more than $30 billion.

The Thai Studies program’s proponents at Harvard include well-intentioned and politically astute individuals who are aware that the some of the money being raised comes with an agenda. Michael Herzfeld in particular has a strong record of standing up for academic freedom. Harvard must ensure that the program is funded and run transparently, and that it is not co-opted by coup apologists or used to legitimize the monarchy. In the meantime, Harvard could burnish its credentials on Thailand by providing support for Thai academics forced into hiding or exile for criticizing the coup and its backers.

Ilya Garger GSAS ‘02 is the founder of Capital Profile, a Hong Kong-based business research service. He is a former reporter for Time magazine, and a member of the Harvard Club of Thailand’s executive committee.

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