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The former dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University, has filed a trespassing charge against two lecturers and a student for taking over the university art centre in October 2021 after the Faculty and the university administration prohibited them from showing their final theses, some of which dealt with social and political themes.

Artist and lecturer Thasnai Sethaseree and another student cut the chains locking the art centre gates

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) reported on Tuesday (8 November) that Faculty of Fine Arts lecturers Sorayut Aiemueayut and Thasnai Sethaseree and Faculty of Fine Arts student Yotsunthorn Ruttapradid received a summons from Phupingrajanivej Police Station for a trespassing charge filed against them by Asawinee Wanjing, then Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts.

The charge resulted from an incident in October 2021, in which students from the Media Arts and Design Department, along with several lecturers, occupied the Chiang Mai University Art Centre after 4th year students were prohibited from exhibiting their final theses in the Art Centre because some pieces addressed social and political themes. 

According to a letter from the students, a request was made to use the University Art Centre to organise a thesis exhibition. In response, the Art Centre stipulated that students would have to submit information about every piece that was to be exhibited, and added that some pieces would not be allowed to be shown, as the Faculty felt that they were politically inappropriate and unfit for public exhibition.

When students submitted the additional documents, the Art Centre reportedly asked them for more information on how the pieces were to be displayed and said that pictures of each piece would need to be given to students’ project supervisors for approval. The request caused concerns that the exhibition would not be ready for the scheduled opening date on 18 October 2021.

After several failed attempts to meet with university administrators, students filed a complaint with the police on the grounds that being prohibited from showing their works could damage the pieces and their education.

On 15 October 2021, students found that water and electricity at the Media Arts and Design Department building had been cut, and that several students working inside the building had been locked inside the Faculty.  All exits were locked with chains. According to the students, they  were later told by university staff that electricity and water in the building were cut by order of the Faculty Dean.

On 16 October, students and lecturers cut the chains, broke through the door of the Art Centre, and occupied the University Art Centre to set up their exhibition. The exhibit ran until 23 October as scheduled. On the closing night, they burned two coffins containing pictures of the Faculty Dean and University Principle in a symbolic act of protest.

They also filed for a temporary injunction with the Chiang Mai Administrative Court, arguing that students are required to show their works in an exhibition to complete their project and received grades from their lecturers. Not being able to stage the exhibition therefore put them at risk of failing their class.

Students and lecturers took over the art centre to set up their exhibition

The Court ruled that university administration had to consider and decide upon the studentsrequest to use the Art Centre after receiving it.  It also said that the administration should not have requested additional documents and evidence, and that if the original request should have been returned to the students in a timely fashion if it did not have all the required documents so that the students and their lecturers could plan accordingly.

As the students had already occupied the Art Centre, exhibited their theses, and received grades from lecturers, the Court added that there was no reason for the defendants to follow court guidelines and no need to considered the matter of compensation for the students. It then dismissed the case. 

Students also filed a petition on 25 October with the Chiang Mai University Council, the House Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice, and Human Rights, and the House Committee on Education to have Asawinee and then-university principle Dr Niwet Nantajit removed from office for attempting to prohibit students from exhibiting their theses and violating their academic freedom.

In March 2021, Asawinee, along with several other faculty personnel attempted to remove students’ art projects from the Media Arts and Design Department building without first informing the students, claiming that some items constituted a possible violation of the law.  The move prompted protests from students and lecturers. Students whose projects were going to be removed also filed charges of theft and destruction of property against Asawinee and faculty personnel involved, as their projects were damaged during the incident and some were missing.

Sarayut, Thasnai, and Yotsunthorn will be reporting to the police on 10 November at 13.00.

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