More than 100 international academic figures have signed an open letter accusing Singapore’s National University Press of bending to political pressure and dropping the publication of a compendium of scholars analyzing the prospects for the end of the era of the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016 after 70 years on the throne.
Titled “Coup, King, Crisis,” the book was edited by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai dissident now in exile at Kyoto University in Japan and features writers including Paul Handley, the author or the acclaimed book “The King Never Smiles,” as well as Australian academic Kevin Hewison and others. Other authors included Federico Ferrara, Claudio Sopranzetti, Charnvit Kasetsiri, Edoardo Siani, Paul Chambers, Sarah Bishop, Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, Krislert Samphantharak, Tyrell Haberkorn, David Streckfuss and Somchai Phatharathananunth.
The manuscript was later accepted and published by Yale University under Yale’s Southeast Asia Studies Monograph series. Singapore public universities and political research institutions, according to Freedom House, a Washington, DC-based rights NGO, “have direct government links that enable political influence and interference in hiring and firing. Recent faculty turnover at two major universities has increased concerns about political pressure. Self-censorship on Singapore-related topics is common among academics, who can face legal and career consequences for critical speech.’
Pavin, who composed the open letter, said Peter Schoppert, director of the NUS Press, and Tan Eng Chye, the NUS President of the decision to cancel the publishing contract in March 2020, but failed to give any explanation regarding the withdrawal, saying the decision “was taken after consultation with stakeholders within and outside the university community.”
“It seems reasonable to assume that the NUS Press’s decision was due to political pressure,” Pavin wrote. “The unexplained and last-minute decision violates the fundamental principles of academic freedom. The reference to outside stakeholders indicates that individuals and/or interest groups outside of academia have the final say in the publication process. This makes a mockery of the independent peer-review process, calling into question the academic integrity of the press itself.”
Some of the authors, including Pavin himself, have had a stormy relationship with the Thai government. He recently complained that he was being followed by unknown figures in Japan. In fact, Thailand has reached well outside the country’s own borders to harass exiled dissidents, according to Human Rights Watch, which in its 2020 World Report said that “In recent years, dissidents who fled persecution in Thailand have faced enforced disappearance in neighboring countries. At least two Thai exiles in Laos, Wuthipong Kachathamakul and Itthipol Sukpaen, were forcibly disappeared in 2016 and 2017 respectively. In 2018, Surachai Danwattananusorn, Chatchan Boonphawal, and Kraidet Lueler were abducted and murdered in Laos. In May, authorities in Vietnam repatriated Chucheep Chivasut, Siam Theerawut, and Kritsana Thapthai to Thailand and the three men have since disappeared.
The manuscript was proposed to the NUS Press in October 2018 and went through what the protesting scholars called a “proper and vigorous peer review process, and all contributors revised their essay accordingly, and in a timely manner.”
On August 29, 2019, Pavin wrote, he signed a contract with the NUS Press on behalf of the contributors, completing the necessary steps to ensure meeting the publication deadline of Spring 2020. As the manuscript was about to go to press, Schoppert wrote to him saying: “It is with great regret that I have to inform you that NUS Press will not be proceeding with our publication of and distribution plans for ‘Coup, King, Crisis’ and would release a statement saying it was “not the sort of decision a university press takes lightly, but it was taken after consultation with stakeholders within and outside the university community. We have informed the book editor, Assoc Prof Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and the contributors to the book, and released them from their obligations under our contract. We apologize for the late notice, and the inconvenience caused.”
Spurned by NUS, Pavin spent the intervening months trying to find a new home for the book. Although Schoppert wrote that although NUS wouldn’t print the book and that it was open to discussing “measures that can be taken to mitigate the impact” of the cancellation, Pavin didn’t bother to negotiate.
The decision on the part of the NUS Press to drop the project revealed the university’s “knowing sacrifice of legitimacy for expediency,” according to the open letter. “Its action exposes others not so well positioned to increased pressure from those who would undermine the foundations of an open society.”
Pavin publicly called for an international moratorium by scholars on all further manuscript reviewing for and submission to the NUS Press, which “has damaged and made a sham of the academic review and publication process “and asked colleagues to not send any new manuscripts to NUS Press.
The affront to critical, independent scholarship represented by NUS Press’s action on this manuscript “suggests that NUS is underserving of its current level of global ranking,” according to the letter, and “has caused reputational damage not just to the press itself but also to NUS.”
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