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  • May 12, 2021

Students Defend Artistic Freedom at Chiang Mai University

Exhibition view of the work by YOTSUNTHON RUTTAPRADIT and VITTHAYA KLANGNIL at Chiang Mai University, before it was removed by university staff. Image via Facebook.

Yotsunthon Ruttapradit and Vitthaya Klangnil, two students of Chiang Mai University (CMU)’s fine arts faculty, are facing legal charges for allegedly violating Thailand’s lèse majesté law and National Flag Act following their presentations of an installation on the CMU campus in March. Vitthaya has continued to protest the charges, staging a performance on May 11 in front of a police station, while a group of teachers, former political leaders, and cultural workers have rallied to support the two artists and call for the protection of free expression at academic institutions.

The allegedly illegal work by Yotsunthon and Vitthaya comprises an altered Thai flag and a cloth-covered mannequin tied to a concrete block—a possible reference to the fates of political activists Chatchan Bupphawan and Kraidej Luelert, whose disemboweled corpses were found wrapped in cloth and tied to a concrete block in the Mekong River in 2018. The installation was first displayed on March 14 on CMU’s rugby field. When it was presented again on March 22 in the media arts and design department building, the dean of the fine arts faculty, supported by other personnel, attempted to remove it along with other student art projects. The operation was halted by professor Thasnai Sethaseree, whose defense of the student works went viral. The installation was exhibited for a third time when students from the faculty gathered on March 25 to demand an explanation for the attempted censorship from CMU’s management.

The complaint against Yotsunthon and Vitthaya was filed in April by Srisuwan Janya, secretary-general of the Association for the Protection of the Constitution, who claims that the work violates the Flag Act, which prohibits any disrespect toward the national emblem. Additionally, he claims that the writing on the flag insults the monarchy—an act prohibited by Section 112 in Thailand’s Criminal Code, also known as the lèse majesté law.

In protest against these charges, Vitthaya staged a performance on May 11 in front of a police station in Chiang Mai, cutting into his chest the numbers “112” with a razor blade. A group of supporters, including teachers and former political leaders, gathered at the police station to show solidarity with both students. Vitthaya was later brought into the station for first-aid treatment.

Meanwhile, the Art and Cultural Activist Network for Democracy, a group of artists and cultural workers formed during the pro-democracy protests in Thailand last year, released a petition on May 10 on social media, demanding that CMU “defend freedom of expression, including academic freedom,” emphasizing the moral duties of the university to support the students. CMU is a public research university established in 1964. In October 2020, CMU had rejected calls to remove an artwork of Thailand’s longest-reigning monarch, King Rama IX, from the facade of a campus building.

Yotsunthon and Vitthaya, who have been summoned by the police, are scheduled to report on May 31 to a police station, where they will likely be detained.

Pamela Wong is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor. 

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