On 10 November, a scuffle broke out in front of Phupingrajanivej police station when police tried to seize a banner from students and activists who went to the station in support of 2 Chiang Mai University (CMU) lecturers and 1 CMU student being charged there. The clash left two protesters with minor injuries. Their banner carried the innocuous message “Art is short. A criminal case is long.”
A policeman with the protesters' performance prop.
The incident arose after Asawinee Wanjing, former Dean of CMU’s Faculty of Fine Arts, filed a trespassing charge against two faculty lecturers, Sorayut Aiemueayut and Thasnai Sethaseree, and a Fine Arts student, Yotsunthorn Ruttapradid.
The complaint stemmed from a confrontation in October 2021, when students and several lecturers occupied the Chiang Mai University Art Centre after 4th year students were prohibited from exhibiting their final theses because some pieces addressed social and political themes.
The clash on Thursday took place after police stopped gatherers from tying banners in front of the police station. Told that they needed official permission to do so, the participants decided to hold up their banners and stage a street performance next to the footpath instead.
Policemen snatch away the banner shortly before the scuffle takes place.
When police officers tried to snatch a banner from Yotsunthorn, other protests intervened. In the ensuing scuffle, police placed one demonstrator in a chokehold.
Event participant Kanteetat Paweekornsombat reported that police officers grabbed him around his neck and assaulted him, injuring his body and face.
“I think the police used excessive force. I was only trying to get back the banner the police took. I wasn’t doing anything violent; the police were the ones who went on a rampage,” said Kanteetat.
When demonstrators sought to file an assault charge, they were told that it would have to be done later as police investigators wanted to hear charges in the scheduled case first.
Occupation over censorship ends in criminal proceedings
The Art Centre was designed to exhibit students’ work. Students occupied it in October 2021 after learning that their projects would be screened to preclude the display of pieces addressing political and social themes.
Artist and lecturer Thasnai Sethaseree and another student cut the chains locking the art centre gates.
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 Principal in a symbolic act of protest.
They also filed 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 receive grades from their lecturers. Not being able to stage the exhibition therefore put them at risk of failing their class.
The Court ruled that the university administration had to consider and decide upon the students’ request to use the Art Centre after receiving it. It also said that the administration should not have requested additional documents and evidence, and that 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.