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Duncan McCargo: Why sword fears pen in Thailand

When the trial of Worachet Pakeerat, a prominent Thai law professor, opens in late November in Bangkok, he will become one of the first Thai civilians to be court-martialed in decades. His crime? Failing to report to the military junta that seized power in this year's May 22 coup. Although his wife had told authorities he was abroad when he was summoned and would report to them on his return, he was nevertheless arrested on arrival in Bangkok on June 18, charged with failing to report on time and quickly handed over to the military courts. Worachet is currently on bail.

     Only one other person has been given similar treatment for failing to answer a military summons: former Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng, one of the most widely respected members of ex-Premier Yingluck Shinawatra's ill-fated cabinet. But Worachet is not a politician, nor is he a leader of the red shirt movement that supports Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and he has not sought to mobilize opposition to the junta. Worachet, who received a royal scholarship for his graduate studies in Germany, is widely regarded -- even by those who disagree with him on many issues -- as among the brightest academics in the country. Ironically, the 45-year-old was promoted to full professor at Thammasat University, one of Thailand's leading educational institutions, immediately after being charged; professorial titles in Thailand are formally awarded by the king himself.

     Worachet has been charged above all because of his ideas. As the leader of a group of critical Thammasat law academics known as Nitirat, he is one of Thailand's first academic celebrities -- capable of packing a huge hall with cheering admirers and supporters. The name Nitirat (which the group likes to translate as "enlightened jurists") contains a deliberate echo of Khana Rassadorn, a name generally abbreviated to Khanarat, or the People's Party -- a grouping of progressive government officials and military officers. It was Khanarat that overthrew Thailand's absolute monarchy in 1932. The leader of Khanarat, Pridi Banomyong, was a former judge who later founded Thammsat University to embody the ideals of the 1932 revolution. Although Pridi went on to hold the exalted posts of regent and then prime minister, he was forced into permanent exile in the late 1940s after losing a power struggle with his archrival, Phibun Songkram.

     By using the Nitirat name and positioning himself as the spiritual heir of Pridi, Worachet has deeply antagonized the military, as well as a political establishment best described as a "network monarchy," an informal power alliance linked to the palace. As Worachet told me in 2012: "We do not say we are like Khana Rassadon, but we consider ourselves contemporaries who have taken on their mission."

A step too far

In the wake of Thailand's 2006 military coup, Worachet was a leading voice criticizing the military and what he called a "spineless" legal elite that had obligingly endorsed the military's seizure of power. Nitirat made headlines in September 2011, when on the fifth anniversary of the 2006 putsch, the group called for "nullification" of the coup and the reversal of everything the coup-makers had initiated. Even more controversially, at a mass meeting on Jan. 15, 2012, Nitirat called for the reform of Thailand's controversial lese-majeste law, under which those who insult the monarchy can be penalized with 15 years or more in jail.

     All of this might have been forgiven. But Worachet and his Nitirat colleagues made a serious tactical blunder, calling a second mass meeting on Jan. 22 at which they called for the reform -- not just of the monarchy but of various other Thai state institutions, including the military. This triggered a furious response from then-army commander in chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who denounced members of Nitirat as "abnormal" and even questioned whether they were actually Thai.

     Shortly afterwards, I witnessed a chilling anti-Nitirat protest in which alumni and lecturers from Thammasat University's faculty of mass communications threatened to expel the embattled lecturers, not just from the campus, but from Thailand itself. With no apparent sense of irony, they held their demonstration in front of the large statue of Pridi Banomyong. A lone woman who showed up sporting a small placard saying "Nitirat OK" was rescued by police after being chased by an angry mob.

     Worachet Pakeerat poses no real threat to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha or to his National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta is known. But the ideas that Worachet and Nitirat represent remain powerful ones, supported by millions of ordinary Thai citizens whose views should be respected and accommodated in any successful process of reconciliation and reform.

     By court martialing one of Thailand's most enlightened jurists, the NCPO has revealed its deep unwillingness to engage in the kind of serious critical debates that the country so badly needs. By dropping these absurd charges, or by simply acquitting Worachet, the military court could do their country a huge service.

Duncan McCargo is a professor of political science and a leading scholar on Thailand; he currently holds a shared appointment at Columbia University and the University of Leeds.

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