Thailand’s military junta stormed a university seminar on democracy, arresting the four academics and three students who had organised it in a move condemned by human rights groups as an "intolerance for any dissenting voices".
The scholars had been attending an event entitled Democracy Classroom: Fall of Foreign Dictator at Bangkok’s Thammasat University on Thursday when the military brought it to a halt.
Martial law is now in place in Thailand, after the military – the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – came to power on 22 May, which made it illegal to criticise the coup and also blocked some websites.
According to Human Rights Watch, the authorities had previously ordered the group to suspend the seminar for fear that it could “affect the attempts to solve conflicts in the country”.
Thailand protests: Thai army declares martial law
Thailand protests: Thai army declares martial law
A Thai soldier stands in front of a portrait of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej as he patrols near government buildings in Bangkok
A pro-government protester points at a soldier during a cleanup at a pro-government demonstration site on the outskirts of Bangkok
Thai soldiers patrol near government buildings in Bangkok
A soldier walks past barefoot Buddhist monks begging for alms outside a temple near Government House in Bangkok
Thai police and army soldiers stand guard outside a military compound before former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives to report to Thailand's ruling military in Bangkok
Thai soldiers stand guard at a roadblock outside the Defence Ministry building (background) after Thailand's army chief announced that the armed forces were seizing power in Bangkok
Thai soldiers patrol after army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha met with anti-government and pro-government leaders at the Army Club in Bangkok
Thai police and military display a haul of weapons seized during recent raids since the imposition of martial law, at a press conference at the Army Club in Bangkok
Thai soldiers stand next to the portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej after the declaration of martial law at the Army Club in Bangkok. Thai Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, declared martial law giving the military full control to prevent further protest-related violence in the country
Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (R) gives a traditional greeting to a soldier before leaving Government House in Bangkok. Thailand's army chief said rival political groups should talk to each other and that the martial law imposed would last until peace and order had been restored
A Thai soldier stands outside the Government Public Relations Department in Bangkok
Thai soldiers man a checkpoint near pro-government "red shirt" supporters encampment in suburbs of Bangkok
(L-R) Thai Police Chief Adul Saengsingkaew, Navy Chief Adm Narong Pipattanasai, Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha and Air Chief Marshall Prachin Chantong during a meeting at the Army Club in Bangkok. Thailand has been wracked by six months of non-stop protests seeking to topple the government. At least 25 people have died in political-related violence and more than 700 injured
Motorists on their way as Thai soldiers take to the streets with a heavy machine gun on a Humvee military vehicle at a main road outside the Royal Thai Police Sports Club in Bangkok
Outside police headquarters in Bangkok
An anti-government protester waves a Thai national flag during a rally outside the Government House in Bangkok. Thailand's Senate said it was ready to choose an interim prime minister to end a political deadlock but stopped short of throwing out a beleaguered caretaker government and risking a violent backlash by its supporters
Thai anti-government protesters shout slogans during a rally in front of the Parliament as senators debate to find and end to the country's political conflict in Bangkok. Thousands of anti-government protesters rallied the area surrounding parliament and Government House to pressure the Senate to appoint an interim government to institute political reforms before new elections while key Thai institutions are resisting the opposition's demands
Thai anti-government protesters gather in front of the Parliament in Bangkok
Thai riot policemen stand guard during an anti-government protest rally at the Air Force auditorium in Bangkok. Thailand's Election Commission called for the postponement of key parliamentary polls due to be held on 20 July 2014 because of political unrest shaking the kingdom
Anti-government protesters leave an air force base after breaking into its grounds in Bangkok. Protesters seeking to oust Thailand's government broke into the grounds of an air force compound where the acting prime minister was meeting the Election Commission to fix a date for new polls, forcing him to flee
Thai Air Force military (L) face anti-government protesters after they broke into the Royal Thai Air Force base in Bangkok. Hundreds of anti-government protesters broke into the meeting between the election commission and the caretaker government as they discussed for the planned next elections on 15 May 2014, after the results of the 02 February general elections were annulled. According to media reports, Thailand's Election Commission said that the 20 July polling is no longer possible due to political turmoil
Thai anti-government protesters leader Suthep Thaugsuban (C-L) cheers his followers during a street rally march toward Government House and Parliament in Bangkok
An anti-government protester (C) gives instructions to a fellow protester on how to wave a huge Thai flag from atop a barricade near the Government House in Bangkok. Thailand's beleaguered government warned people to stay away from anti-government protests, saying it had to step up security as the two sides in a lengthy political crisis squared off over who is running the country
An anti-government protester looks at a damaged telephone booth after a grenade attack at a protest site outside Government House in Bangkok. Supporters of Thailand's embattled government warned the country's judiciary and Senate against any attempt to install an unelected prime minister, saying it would be a disaster for the nation that could spark civil war
Anti-government protesters making a fist and waving a giant Thai flag, the symbol of the protest, on top of a truck as they rally outside Thai Parliament in a call for the final battle in Bangkok. Protesters marched on many key sites in Bangkok, police fired tear gas and some protesters have been injured. Protest leaders say they are hoping to strike the final blow at the weakened government and usher in a people's council to reform the government
In the demand, Colonel Noppadon Tawrit, Commander of the Kings Guard’s 1st Field Artillery Regiment, called for its cancellation in order “to prevent the resurgence of differences in political attitude”.
After they staged the discussion regardless, academics Nidhi Eoseewong, Prajak Kongkirati, Chaowarit Chaowsangrat, and Janjira Sombutpoonsiri, alongside students Worrawut Wongsamart, Rattapon Supasopon, and Sorrawit Serivivat, were reportedly held and interrogated for a number of hours at a police station. They were later released without charge.
“While telling the world that they are not dictators, the Thai military authorities are extending their grip into universities and banning discussions about democracy and human rights,” Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said.
เจ้าหน้าที่ มธ. ประกาศของดการจัดกิจกรรม อ้างเหตุผลความปลอดภัย บอกถ้าจะจัดคราวหน้าให้ทำหนังสือมา pic.twitter.com/NMzgVAp9aj; Pongkwan Sawasdipakd (@pongkwans) September 18, 2014
Prajak Kongkirati and Nidhi Eiawsreewong among those detained by police for participating in an academic discussion. pic.twitter.com/tvFRajHKFk; Panuwat (@tumbler_p) September 18, 2014
“Prime Minister Prayuth [Chan-ocha] should immediately end this crackdown on academic freedom and free speech.”
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) also demanded for the NCPO to “immediately top harassing and arbitrarily detaining students and academics who exercise their right to freedom of expression.”
“Yesterday’s arrest of students and academics is yet another ominous reminder of the military junta’s intolerance for any dissenting voices,” FIDH President Karim Lahidji said.
“In light of the ongoing arbitrary arrests and severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the junta’s claim that it respects human rights is a poorly-disguised pretense.”
Thailand’s martial law also forbids politically-motivated gatherings of more than five people, while the police reportedly censured the lecturers and students for not seeking permission to hold the talk beforehand.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has since commented on the arrests: “Please understand that I don't come from an election. I'm well aware of that. So please put on hold all political criticism and forums on politics,” the Bangkok Post reports.
“They had been invited in several times to be asked for their cooperation in refraining from speaking out at this time, because the country is moving forward. We are in the process of introducing reforms and building reconciliation.”
The swoop happened just 10 minutes after eminent intellectual Professor Nidhi, 74, began speaking to the congregated audience. They group were then taken to the police station for “attitude adjustment”, the Bangkok Post said, while Mr Prajak defended the seminar and said it was discussing the politics of other countries, not Thailand.