The 2016 Thailand Update at Columbia was attended by around 50 people throughout the day, drawn by the line-up of expert speakers discussing different aspects of Thailand's politics, society and economy. The May 22, 2014 military coup has made Thailand the renewed focus of scholarly and journalistic interest over the past two years, and despite occasional moments of optimism, most of the presenters had a somber story to tell.
The event was opened by Penchan Phoborisut, who has recently submitted her PhD at University of Utah and will soon take up a tenure-track position in communication studies at California State University in Fullerton. Penchan discussed the ways in which social and alternative media have become a site of political dissent and state suppression since the 2014 coup. Duncan McCargo, Professor of Political Science at the University of Leeds and Visiting Professor of Political Science at Columbia, discussed the latest developments in the junta's moves to draft a new constitution. He argued that the constitutional referendum scheduled for August 7 may pose a turning point to the ruling National Council for Peace and Order, since a poor result will indicate the failure of the military to achieve national unity and consensus. An op-ed based on his talk may be found here.
In the second panel, Professor Frank Munger of New York Law School and Dr Tyrell Haberkorn of ANU discussed recent developments in criminal cases and the work done by cause lawyers in Thailand. Munger highlighted the dilemmas cause lawyers faced in responding to the return of military rule, and their divergent understandings of the best way to continue operating in the human rights field. Haberkorn focused on the culture of impunity illustrated by the inability of the justice system to address the enforced disappearance of prominent human rights law Somchai Neelpaichit in 2004.
During the afternoon session,Columbia's Paul Busbarat gave an overview of Thai foreign policy over the past two years, arguing that the NCPO has missed opportunities to take initiatives, concentrating instead on a more reactive policy stance which included seeking to accommodate Chinese agendas. In the final paper, Krislert Samphantharak of UC San Diego reviewed recent developments in the Thai economy, arguing that the government was failing properly to address structural challenges on a number of fronts.
The Thai Update has quickly established itself as popular calendar item, attracting an audience travelling from places including Washington DC and Ohio. With support from NYSEAN, SEASI and the APEC Study Center, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute hopes to make it an annual event.