(New York, NY) — A prominent university in Thailand earlier this month capitulated to a pressure campaign and retaliated against a student leader and free speech advocate in a country with strict laws against criticizing the monarchy. PEN American today said Chulalongkorn University officials’ retaliation against Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal for his organizing of a student orientation and the union’s publishing of a new student handbook represents an astonishingly thin-skinned assault on students’ rights to free expression and academic freedom.

“The university’s threat to punish Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, made in apparent response to criticism from alumni who disagree with him, demonstrates a flagrant disregard for student speech and casts a shameful black mark on Chulalongkorn University,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of free expression at risk programs at PEN America. “Students at a world-class university such as Chulalongkorn must be afforded the universal right to free expression, rather than bowing to the political whims of alumni who disagree with that expression. Chotiphatphaisal and his fellow students should be allowed to publish written materials and invite speakers to express their opinions. We urge Chulalongkorn University not to succumb to its alumni network’s request that Chotiphatphaisal be punished or investigated simply because these alumni disagree with his perspective as leader of the Student Union.”

Chotiphatphaisal is the president of the student union at Chulalongkorn University, a prominent Thai university based in Bangkok. On July 20, the student union organized an incoming student orientation and invited activists to speak about freedom of expression and social justice, including pro-democracy activists Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, both of whom have previously been detained under Thailand’s lèse-majesté law outlawing criticism of the monarchy. The student union then published a new students’ handbook, the content of which reportedly included material on freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and other social concerns.

The handbook was soon denounced by the university’s department of student affairs. Additionally, pro-monarchy alumni organized the “Chulalongkorn University Defense Committee” in response, and the group issued a letter pressuring the university to punish Chotiphatphaisal with disciplinary and legal action, including involving the police in a formal investigation. In apparent capitulation to alumni demands, the vice president of student affairs sent a letter on August 4 threatening disciplinary action against Chotiphatphaisal, which would strip him of his union presidency. 

Chotiphatphaisal was removed from the student union in a similar manner in 2017, but following public pressure and a protracted lawsuit, he was reinstated as president in 2019. When running again for student union president this year, he won over 10,000 of the 14,691 votes. Chotiphatphaisal is also an independent publisher and translator who founded Sam Yan Press, a publishing house run by students focused on “publishing progressive ideas to Thai society.” Titles translated into Thai include Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship by Hannah Arendt, Two Concepts of Liberty by Isaiah Berlin, and Outsider in the White House by Bernie Sanders. 

Thailand’s lèse-majesté law makes it a crime to “insult” or “defame” the king or the royal family. Under the law, such an insult is punishable by three to 15 years’ imprisonment, placing it among the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world. Thailand has seen a significant rise in lèse-majesté cases since 2020 in the wake of protests calling for political reform, including reforms to ensure that the monarchy is subject to the constitution. In January 2021, former civil servant Anchan Preelert was sentenced to 43 years’ imprisonment for sharing audio clips critical of the monarchy online.

PEN America, along with other members of the PEN International network, have previously called upon Thai authorities to abolish or reform the law in line with international human rights guarantees. International legal experts, including the former UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, have been explicit that the lèse-majesté law is inconsistent with Thailand’s international legal obligations.