Professors claim missive is part of a move to muzzle academics
LECTURERS AT Prince of Songkla University (PSU) have called for the protection of their academic freedom in the wake of a recent military reaction to their campaign against the Thepha coal-fired power-plant project.
On April 21, the 42nd Military Circle sent a letter to PSU president Associate Professor Chusak Limsakul asking for cooperation in helping faculty members understand the work process and construction of the planned power plant.
Chusak said yesterday that he did not see the letter as a form of intimidation, as it did not issue any orders.
“We acknowledged the letter and informed our staff about its content. But we shall not muzzle them,” he said.
He added that it was normal for a project to have both supporters and opponents, with each side trying to present its opinion.
After receiving the letter, Chusak invited the PSU lecturers who had joined an Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) trip to Japan to examine coal-fired power plants to a meeting yesterday in order to seek further information.
Up to seven PSU lecturers had gone on the May 14-20 trip to Japan, and two of them attended the meeting with Chusak. They were Assistant Professors Apiradee sae Lim and Sarawuth Chesoh. The letter from the military caused a stir after Somporn Chuai-aree, another PSU lecturer who had joined the trip, posted a copy of it on social media.
PSU lecturer Direk Hemnakorn, who is also coordinator for the Southernmost People’s Network of Community Rights and Environment Safeguards for Peace, said the letter was an attempt by the military towards controlling academic freedom.
“From this action, we can’t help but think they are aligning themselves with those supporting the coal-fired power plant, and standing against local people and the academics who are against the project,” Direk said.
“Their move to silence the academics is a threat to academic freedom. I’m very disappointed that the Army unit in the South, which I believe has a better understanding with the locals than other Army units, would do something like this.”
He also questioned the military’s neutrality, as members of the 42nd Military Circle had facilitated and guarded all three public hearings on the power-plant project, and stopped the opposing side from participating.
Another PSU lecturer, Somporn Chuai-aree, said the letter did not worry him because the university had not stopped him from providing academic data to fight the campaign against the coal-fired power plant.
“I don’t know what the purpose of the letter is, but I will continue doing my academic duty and providing accurate information to society,” Somporn said.
Former PSU president Associate Professor Prasert Chitapong, who has joined the anti-power-plant group, said it was inappropriate for state agencies to ask the university to oppose or support any government projects.
“If PSU and other academic institutions have any comments, they will have to provide them based upon academic principles. This should not have happened because it can be seen as a threat to academic freedom and is unacceptable according to international standards,” Prasert said.
In a related development, the Southern NGOs Coordinating Committee on Development (NGO-COD) submitted a petition with the Sena Narong Barracks before discussing it with the barracks’ deputy commander
The Southern NGO-COD also issued a statement saying the Army’s “warning” letter was a clear effort to obstruct honest expression based on academic principles. It also urged the military to revoke the letter, ensure its neutrality, become a medium for communication among the people and gather academic information to present to the authorities.
Meanwhile, Colonel Woraphon Woraphan, second deputy commander of the 42nd Military Circle, issued an apology, saying he was sorry that the letter had led people to think the military was trying to interfere with academic freedom. He insisted that the purpose of the Army operation was only to prevent conflicts and that it had accepted the NGO-COD’s demands for consideration. The Thepha plant is a new power project launched by Egat. The plant, covering 2,960 rai (473.6 hectares) in tambon Pak Bang, will have 2,200-megawatt capacity and will use imported coal.
The project is heavily opposed by local people as they are worried about the impact it will have on the environment and health.