Chiang Mai U student, lecturers indicted over Art Centre occupation

Two lecturers and a former student at Chiang Mai University have been indicted on charges relating to an incident in October 2021, when students took over the University Art Centre after the Faculty of Fine Arts and the university administration prohibited them from showing their final theses, some of which dealt with social and political themes.

Sorayut Aiemueayut, Yotsunthorn Ruttapradid, and Thasnai Sethaseree. (Photo from TLHR)

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) said yesterday (23 January) that Faculty of Fine Arts lecturers Sorayut Aiemueayut and Thasnai Sethaseree and Faculty of Fine Arts graduate Yotsunthorn Ruttapradid were indicted on charges of trespassing and destruction of property.

TLHR said that the public prosecutor originally intended to dismiss the charges, but the Commissioner of Provincial Police Region 5 objected to the dismissal. The public prosecutor eventually indicted them on both charges, stating that they destroyed university property worth 3,314 baht, including sets of chains, door bolts, and padlocks.

Thasnai raised questions during a press conference before reporting to the public prosecutor whether the university has committed perjury by filing the complaint, or if it is attempting to silence the three people charged.

Meanwhile, Yotsunthorn said that universities should not curb students’ education or silence them, especially in art programmes. He also said that if he hadn’t cut the chains, someone else would have done so.

“New knowledge needs as broad limits as possible. It shouldn’t be that you are locking gates and making it small, and stopping people from talking. For artists, not being able to exhibit our work is like being silenced. It’s not right, so we decided that we are going to keep on with our work. We just needed to cut the chains, because our [department] building is already in there,” he said.

In October 2021, 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. 

The students said that after filing a request to use the University Art Centre to organize a thesis exhibition, the university administration repeatedly asked them for additional information and documents. Students were also required to submit information about every piece that was to be exhibited, and were told that some pieces would not be allowed, as the Faculty felt that they were politically inappropriate and unfit for public exhibition.

Several days before the exhibition, students found that electricity and water at the Media Arts and Design department building had been cut, allegedly on orders from the Faculty Dean. All exits from the building grounds were also locked with chains. The next day, students and lecturers cut the chains and occupied the University Art Centre to set up their exhibition.

Since participating in the exhibition is a requirement for the students to complete their project and receive a grade for the class, the university’s refusal to grant them permission to use the Art Centre caused concerns that the exhibition would not be ready for the schedule opening date, and put them at risk of failing their class. The students therefore filed for a temporary injunction with the Chiang Mai Administrative Court, which ruled in their favour but did not issue an order to the University because the students had already occupied the Art Centre and exhibited their theses.

After the exhibition, students filed a petition 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 Wanjing, then Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, and then-university President Dr Niwet Nantajit removed from office for attempting to prohibit students from exhibiting their theses and violating their academic freedom.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also said that the university had violated academic freedom, which is a violation of human rights, by not informing the students whether they would be allowed to use the Art Centre in a timely manner. It also issued a recommendation to the Chiang Mai University administration that it should be careful when making decisions so as not to violate academic freedom.

The NHRC also recommended that the Faculty of Fine Arts should amend their regulation on requesting the use of the University Art Centre so that there is a clear time frame on when requests would be approved and so students and lecturers would be allowed to speak to the Art Centre Committee when seeking permission.

In November 2022, Asawinee filed a complaint against Sarayut, Thasnai, and Yotsunthorn. The complaint was filed on behalf of the university administration, who issued a letter granting Asawinee the power of attorney to do so.

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 the faculty personnel involved, as their projects were damaged during the incident and some went missing.

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