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Two Chiang Mai University students reported to the police yesterday (11 May) after being summoned on a royal defamation charge over an art installation piece, while an artists’ network has called on the University to defend their freedom.

Yotsunthon Ruttapradid (left) and Withaya Khlangnin (right) arriving at the police station. Yotsunthon is wearing a shirt saying "In the name of art." 

Withaya Khlangnin and Yotsunthon Ruttapradid went to Phuping Rajanivej Police Station at 9.00 to answer charges under Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, or the lèse majesté law, and the 1979 Flag Act. They were summoned by the police after Srisuwan Janya, Secretary-General of the Association for the Protection of the Constitution, filed a complaint against them for an art installation piece they exhibited during a 14 March 2021 protest at Chiang Mai University. 

The installation piece was also shown during an event on 25 March 2021, when students from the Faculty of Fine Arts gathered in front of the University’s Office of Strategy Management to demand an explanation from University and Faculty management for an incident on 22 March 2021, when the Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts and 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 pieces could violate the law.

The art piece features a mannequin wrapped in plastic in the middle of two red and white strips, on which participants at the 14 March protest were invited to write down messages. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) reported that, according to the police, the messages violated Section 112. The police also said that, since the art piece looks like a Thai flag without the blue stripe, which represents the monarchy, it means that the artist does not wish for the monarchy to exist in the country.

Withaya and Yotsunthon denied all charges. Their lawyer requested that they be released at the inquiry stage on the ground that they are not likely to flee and are not able to tamper with the evidence. They were released after police officers took their fingerprints, and were not taken to court for a temporary detention request as they were initially told by the inquiry officer. They are required to report to the police again on 31 May 2021.

Before he went into the police station, Withaya staged a performance during which he used a razor to cut the number “112” into his chest. Police officers tried to stop him, but were not successful.

Police officers also used metal fence to block the entrance to the police station, while around 15 uniformed officers and at least 20 plainclothes officers were stationed around the building as a group of around 40 supporters gathered.

Somchai Preechasinlapakun, lecturer from the Faculty of Law, Chiang Mai University, who came to the police station with the students, said that he is very concerned that this is happening to the students, as the university should be protecting their freedom of expression, and that the students’ way of expression is not unusual among those who are interested in freedom of expression and those who are involved in the arts. He questioned how the evidence in the case ended up in the hands of the police, and that it would be very bad if it was sent to the police by university personnel.

Somchai Preechasinlapakun

Meanwhile, the Art and Cultural Activist Network for Democracy (ACAND), a network of artists, activists, and academics, issued a statement signed by 518 people, calling for the university to protect academic freedom and support the students.

ACAND demands that the Faculty of Fine Arts defend the students’ creativity and expression, and that Chiang Mai University must grant the students’ right to legal protection and moral support. They also called on the Thai authorities to respect the students’ right to bail.

“We, the Art and Cultural Network for Democracy, will monitor this case to inform the international art and cultural communities. We will watch the Chiang Mai University Administration’s response to the role in defending artistic and academic freedom and its response to the use of legal action against artistic and academic freedom too,” says the statement.

ACAND's full statement reads: 

Statement : Art and Cultural Activist Network for Democracy (ACAND) Chiang Mai University Must Defend Free Speech and Academic Freedom: The Case of Accused Art Students Charged with Criminal Act’s Section 112

According to an accusation of two art students from the Faculty of Fine Arts for the violation of Criminal Act’s Section 112 or the Lèse-majesté Law only because the students staged their performance art to challenge the authoritarian rules. They are also accused of the violation of the Flag Act for using the national flag in their artworks and the violation other Sections of Emergency Act.

Art and Cultural Activist Network for Democracy (ACAND) demands the Chiang Mai University Administration and legal authorities as follow:

University administrations are subjected not only to conduct teaching, researching but also defending freedom of expression including academic freedom. The diversity of university and academic freedom are the keys to world class university’s ranking. The Faculty of Fine Arts must play a major role of defending student’s creativity and expression to meet with global standard of higher educators. As a teacher and a university administrator, Chiang Mai University should grant the students’ rights to legal protection and moral support.

The ignorance and failure to defend Free Speech would be both harmful to the university’s ambitious goal towards a world class university and the role of higher educators to protect academic and artistic freedom of its staff and students, which is the key indicator to world university ranking.

ACAND also demands the Thai legal authorities and judicial branch to respect the rights to bail of the accused students.  If the case is under the review of court, the accused are still innocent.  The accused students should be allowed to prove their innocence without detention.

We, the Art and Cultural Network for Democracy, will monitor this case to inform international art and cultural communities. We will watch the Chiang Mai University Administration’s response to the role in defending artistic and academic freedom and its response to the use of legal action against artistic and academic freedom too.    

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