23 May 2024

Professor Chaiyan Chaiyaporn has become a hero for royalists after winning the latest legal battle over Thailand’s much-disputed history.

Chaiyan, a senior political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University (CU), recently won a high-profile defamation case brought against him by Asst Prof Nattapoll Chaiching, deputy dean of Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Nattapoll’s 2022 lawsuit accused Chaiyan of repeatedly defaming him on Facebook by claiming there were multiple inaccuracies in his CU doctoral thesis on politics under Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram’s rule, and his two books based on the paper.

Chaiyan alleged that certain references were based on non-existent sources and were an attempt to “distort history” and incite hatred for the Thai monarchy.

The professor, who heads Chulalongkorn’s research program, alerted the university to 31 allegedly inconsistent and inaccurate references in the thesis.

Academic responsibility

The Criminal Court on March 5 acquitted Chaiyan on grounds that he was exercising his lawful right to free speech in commenting on the plaintiff’s thesis.

The court also ruled that as an experienced scholar who specializes in examining dissertations, Chaiyan has the academic right to present “the other side of the story” in the interests of historical accuracy, particularly regarding deceased figures who can no longer speak out against errors.

Speaking after the court verdict, Chaiyan said that Nattapoll’s thesis and the books based on it had caused damage to the monarchy by claiming that the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej “eagerly gave approval” to a military coup backed by Field Marshal Plaek. He said that certain references cited to back that claim were found to contain no such information.

“I have been a thesis adviser at Chulalongkorn University since 1992 and have dealt with hundreds of dissertations. I am strict [about factual accuracy] in order to prevent possible academic damage,” he said.

Academics have a duty to check the veracity of citations they use to support their claims and statements, he said. It is often difficult for students and laypeople to do the verification for themselves since references are sometimes not available in Thailand or on the internet, he explained.

“You need to be responsible not only to academia but also to the public,” he said.

Monarchist, not royalist

Chaiyan, a 64-year-old professor with distinctive long hair, refuses to be labelled a “royalist academic” but concedes he is a monarchist who believes the institution should be preserved in Thailand.

However, he also encourages public debate on which political system is best for Thailand.

As a political scientist, he doubts the wisdom of abandoning the constitutional monarchy after 90 years, following the 1932 Siamese Revolution, and “starting anew” with a presidential system – whether based on the United States or France.

“To start from square one would bring a lot of uncertainties. Choosing between the US and French systems would be a big issue. How long would it take for us to make the decision?” he asked in an interview with The People three years ago.

“Regarding political institutions, I think we need to retain this system [constitutional monarchy]. There would be a cost involved with change. If you want to change, do you already know which system you want to change to?”

Born on September 18, 1959, Chaiyan attended Assumption College before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Chulalongkorn University.

He obtained his master’s degree in the same subject from the University of Wisconsin followed by a doctorate in political philosophy from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

He teaches political theory and philosophy at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science and has been a special lecturer at several other universities, including Thammasat, Rangsit, Chiangmai, and Ramkhamhaeng.

Chaiyan has also authored a long list of books, research papers, and academic articles on Thai politics, democracy and the monarchy, among others.

He was recently named 2024’s outstanding researcher in political science and public administration by the National Research Council of Thailand.

Act of protest

Chaiyan is well remembered for tearing up his ballot paper during the April 2006 general election to protest then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s dissolution of the House of Representatives to avoid a censure debate following the controversial tax-free sale of his family’s shareholding in telecom giant Shin Corp.

The academic said Thaksin’s House dissolution was “undemocratic” and the snap election was meant to “whitewash” his wrongdoing.

Chaiyan was arrested at the scene of his ballot protest. He was subsequently acquitted by a court in 2010 before later being found guilty of property damage by the Court of Appeals, which handed him a two-month suspended jail sentence, a fine of 2,000 baht, and a five-year ban from voting. The verdict was later upheld by the Supreme Court.

The wall of Chaiyan’s Chulalongkorn University office is adorned with a framed photo of him tearing up his ballot paper at a voting station, clipped from a newspaper front page.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk