Oct 03 2017

Championing academic freedom

Philippe Peycam

This summer, two incidents reminded us that academic freedom, which we often take for granted, can be curtailed or overtly restricted. The first incident was the absurd charge of ‘fomenting illegal political assembly’ brought against our colleague Professor Chayan Vaddhanaphuti from Chiang Mai University, along with four very young Thai academics, Chaipong Samnieng (PhD candidate), Teeramon Buangam (MA student), Nontawat Machai (undergraduate student), all from CMU, and Pakavadi Veerapaspong, an independent writer and translator.

Dr Chayan was entrusted by his university to oversee the organization of two major international events in his home city last July: the 13th International Thai Studies Conference (ICTS) and the 10th International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS). Both events were unquestionably an astounding success. They were attended by respectively 1000 and 1300 participants, from 37 and 50 countries. The two conferences had been previously approved by the Thai authorities. They brought global centrality and distinction to Chiang Mai and Thailand for the impeccable and professional way in which they were organized. The so-called ‘crime’ of Dr Chayan and his colleagues, in the eyes of the military regime, was that they organized the ICTS conference, and within it open spaces of exchanges between its academic participants, and that they continued to assert their academic freedom despite the ubiquitous and provocative presence at the event of plain-clothed military personnel intent on intimidating people by photographing and filming them while they were engaged in discussions.

The second incident to which I was referring, was the news that the prestigious academic publishing house Cambridge University Press (CUP), under pressure from the Chinese government, and primarily concerned with commercial interests, discreetly agreed to restrict access in China to hundreds of articles and book reviews and thousands of e-books in two of its flagship Chinese and Asian studies journals, China Quarterly and The Journal of Asian Studies. The decision triggered considerable international outcry, including among Chinese scholars. As a result, CUP decided to reverse its decision. Meanwhile, in the wake of the Chinese government's increasing efforts to tighten controls on academics and their institutions, other international publishers conceded to have quietly censored their content in order to gain access to Chinese markets. At least one database company, LexisNexis, pulled two of its products from China after pressure from authorities.

These two unrelated incidents expose blatant policies by states to silence academics or restrict the impact of their work. In the CUP case at least, the academic community, through wide forms of protest succeeded in blocking a disgraceful scheme. The case of Dr Chayan and his colleagues is still pending. The outrage that followed the news of the charges brought against them will hopefully make the Thai authorities realize that an overtly restrictive policy towards academics will bear considerably negative consequences for the future of the country.

Dr Chayan Vaddhanaphuti (left) and Dr Philippe Peycam (right) speaking at the ICAS Keynote Roundtable ‘Upholding Democratic Values in Southeast Asia: Intellectual Freedom and Public Engagement’.

IIAS, a proud member of the international academic community, reiterates its commitment to the fundamental value of academic freedom, which should always override considerations of governments' demands or market access. One initiative Dr Chayan and IIAS specifically undertook when we organized ICAS 10 in Chiang Mai, somewhat anticipated what was to unfold in July. As a response to discussions one year earlier among a few individual scholars on the opportunity of boycotting ICAS and ICTS because the events would take place in military-run Thailand, we thought, instead, to offer a public platform for individuals whose life-long engagements demonstrated their commitment to uphold intellectual and public freedom in their country. We invited Dr Maria Serena Diokno, Dr Jon Ungpakorn and Dr Son Soubert, from respectively the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia, countries where intellectual and political freedoms have been - and are being increasingly - violated. The speakers’ backgrounds or political inclinations differ; yet all three share the same quest for justice, dignity and democratic rights for their countrymen and women, including academic freedom. The ICAS Keynote Roundtable for which the three speakers were invited, was entitled ‘Upholding Democratic Values in Southeast Asia: Intellectual Freedom and Public Engagement’, and took place in the afternoon of 22 July 2017. It was attended by a large proportion of the ICAS participants.

At the end of the event, the speakers were approached by a delegation of Bunongs – a small ethnic minority with its own language and beliefs located on the mountainous border between Vietnam and Cambodia. The Bunongs’ distress as a community dates from the war period. They are today being expelled from their ancestral lands to give way to commercial ventures such as industrial plantations or mining. The case of this community and the presence of its representatives at the roundtable attests of another form of freedom, less clearly articulated than that of academic freedom, but that nonetheless is linked to the risk of the reduction of freedom of expression. Historians, anthropologists, geographers, linguists and other academics have often become the last spokespersons or advocates for these communities. This is also true for the numerous communities or groups that are being evicted from the many inner-city areas of Asian cities or other marginalized communities like the Rohingyas in Burma.  

The current commercialization of higher education, with its logic of increased precariousness of academics, also contributes to the marginalization of these voices. We see how CUP, a beacon of academic excellence turned into a for-profit outlet, was ready to dispose of the secular intellectual trust put into it by thousands of scholars. We also see how the teaching of entire communities’ languages and histories can be suppressed from curricula because these don’t attract enough students or funding, or because, as was the case in Japan a few years ago, these do not stand as ‘useful’ or marketable knowledge worth being supported by the state. As we well know, there are many ways – often discreet – to keep academics from performing their role as public educators and ‘openers of consciousness’.

These questions of intellectual and academic freedom are at the core of IIAS. Since its creation, the institute has always supported and cherished the highest level of freedom of intellectual expression and engagement. In developing its networks and platforms we strive to render audible voices that exist beyond restrictions or imposed hierarchies whether based on geographic, ideological, social, gender, sexual, ethnic, religious or other determinations. Many of the institute’s projects, this Newsletter included, are freely accessible.

There is no populist undertone in these lines. Merely a search for inclusion and a recognition of the diversity of perspectives that can only shape a vibrant public sphere of intellectual exchanges. It is not for nothing that IIAS is located in Leiden, a long-time refuge of universal intelligences like those of Joseph Scaliger, René Descartes or Albert Einstein, and the place where their writings were published free from censorship and restrictions of all kinds.

Philippe Peycam, Director IIAS