Surakiart Sathirathai, who was deputy PM under Thaksin Shinawatra, has been campaigning for funds for a Thai Studies program at Harvard University. Pic: AP.

It is an unfortunate reality that many areas of study at universities across the world will never have the same draw than others. Very often, the more exotic the area, the less attractive it is for most prospective students.

There can, however, be certain benefits to taking the road less traveled. With (theoretically) smaller student to faculty ratios and (theoretically) a broader range of topics to cover, the more exotic subjects provide students with an opportunity to study something that is substantially less crowded than, say, law, economics or medicine, engage in cultural and academic exchanges with foreign cultures, and maybe even become a rare expert in that area.

Despite being often ridiculed as such an exotic fringe subject (or as the Germans say an ”Orchideenfach”, comparing it to an orchid flower – small, expensive and useless according to some) by the general public, Thai Studies at foreign universities actually have a tradition going back several decades. Cornell University was the first in the United States to open a Thai Studies center in 1947.  Formal Thai-language education in Germany dates back to the 1930s. Today, a number of Thai Studies programs with vastly different specializations are being offered at universities worldwide.

One of the institutions that may, or may not, be added to this list is Harvard University in the United States, considered to be one of the elite universities in the world. That is the wish of Michael Herzfeld, professor of anthropology at Harvard and a key figure behind the initiative to establish a Thai Studies program there.

In 2012, the first seeds were sown:

On April 18, Thai Studies at Harvard was launched with an inaugural lecture on “Thailand at Harvard.” (…)

The targeted $6 million in funds will enable the programme to provide Thai language instruction; fund a chair (professorship) of Thai studies; and host seminars, workshops, lectures, and a film series focusing on Thailand. (…)

Prof Herzfeld emphasised it was crucial to establish a Thai programme in perpetuity at Harvard. He maintains the only way to do so was to create a dedicated professorship and a dedicated programme of Thai language instruction, and seminars and lectures on Thailand across the entire university. These facilities would provide resources for people in the community who have interests in working in, or doing research about Thailand.

According to the plan, the chair of Thai studies would be open to researchers on Thailand from any academic discipline. This would be a tenured position for a senior professor and would have a title that includes the name of the chair. The incumbent could be of any nationality.

Harvard plans to launch Thai studies initiative”, The Nation, May 21, 2012

Last week, The Harvard Crimson – a student-run college newspaper – published an article by Harvard alumni Ilya Garger that focuses on the current state of the Thai Studies efforts, in particular its financing and its supporters:

(…) Harvard is collaborating with key supporters of the recent coup to create a permanent Thai Studies program at the university. These individuals, most prominently former Foreign Ministers Surin Pitsuwan and Surakiart Satirathai, have spearheaded a campaign to raise $6 million for the program, which they have characterized as a means of promoting Thailand’s monarchy and national interests. Professor Michael Herzfeld, who is leading the initiative, wrote in an emailed statement to me that the program would not be tied to specific political interests and Harvard conducts due diligence on its donors. (…)

(…) At a fundraising event I attended in Bangkok last August, Surakiart declared that the Thai Studies at Harvard was intended as “a program to honor the King.” (…)

(…) Surin used the word “beachhead” to describe the envisioned role of the Thai Studies program. (…) Surin announced donations from several tycoons, and said he was seeking funding for the program from the King’s Crown Property Bureau, which manages the monarch’s wealth of more than $30 billion.

The Thai Studies program’s proponents at Harvard include well-intentioned and politically astute individuals who are aware that the some of the money being raised comes with an agenda. Michael Herzfeld in particular has a strong record of standing up for academic freedom. Harvard must ensure that the program is funded and run transparently, and that it is not co-opted by coup apologists (…)

”Troubles with Thai Studies”, by Ilya Garger, The Harvard Crimson, August 18, 2014

The article also elaborates on Harvard University’s ties to members of the Thai royal family. That is likely the reason why the article and the allegations made in it got even more attention when it was taken off The Harvard Crimson’s website last Wednesday because of ”concerns about the personal safety of its author” during his stay in Thailand at the time of publishing.

”The fact that we were compelled to temporarily remove the piece certainly was surprising,” said Crimson president Sam Weinstock in an email reply to Asian Correspondent. “We avoid removing content from our website in all but extremely exceptional circumstances.” Weinstock also added that he is not aware if a similar situation has occurred before at the college newspaper.

Indeed, given the tone and sensitive issues raised in the article, the author might well have put himself in the crosshairs. An apparent death threat was made  against Garger by a Los Angeles-based Thai national on Facebook, but that reportedly happened after the removal of the critical article and also not on the Facebook pages of anybody directly involved.

A day later the article was put back up on the Crimson website with a note that the author Ilya Garger had left Thailand. The Hong Kong-based founder of a business research service told Asian Correspondent that the request to temporarily remove his article from The Harvard Crimson’s website ”wasn’t in response to any individual threat. (…) No one has personally contacted me with any threats, ” but admitted that the response to his article was ”stronger than expected.”

Garger added that the Thai Studies initiative at Harvard has progressed as far as it is has ”because relatively few people knew about it.” While lauding Prof. Herzfeld in his article for his strong standing for academic freedom, Garger thinks Herzfeld made ”too many concessions in exchange for donations. (…) I wrote the article because I think that with more scrutiny, this program will be carried out in a more responsible way.”

Surin Pitsuwan. Pic: AP

In the aforementioned article, two Thai politicians are named the main campaigners raising the estimated $6m for the Thai Studies program. One is Surakiart Sathirathai, former deputy prime minister under Thaksin Shinawatra, with whom he split after the military coup of 2006. The other man is Surin Pitsuwan, former foreign minister under Chuan Leekpai and 2013 ASEAN secretary-general. The latter publicly supported the anti-government protests (at least in their early stages) that preluded the military coup of May 22.

Both Harvard alumni, Surakiart and Surin invited members of the Harvard Club of Thailand for a fundraiser evening in August last year. The event, which was attended by high-ranking members of the Democrat Party (as shown in a ThaiPBS news report), held a reception for Michael Herzfeld and Jay Rosengard of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

In the invitation seen by Asian Correspondent, Mr. Surakiart and Mr. Surin called for a permanent Thai Studies program ”for the benefits of our own Thai people,” but also ”Harvard scholars and students to learn Thai, to study our rich history and our proud culture” in order ”to offer solutions to our issues of the day within a larger global context, to help increase competitiveness of our human resources, to raise our profile and that of our products and services, among others.”

The event also highlighted the need for scholarships and fellowships to Harvard University are for Thai students ”less privileged than us” and a need for Thai professors ”hold prominent teaching and research positions” at the Thai Studies program at Harvard.

Herzfeld declined to respond to Asian Correspondent’s questions about the Crimson article, and also more general questions about the current progress of the Thai Studies initiative. Instead, we were referred to a Harvard spokesman, who issued a statement  saying that ”faculty searches and appointments are conducted independently, and faculty members determine and pursue their own research interests and teaching” whenever donations are accepted.

The involvement of Thai politicians and apparent supporters of Thailand’s recent military coup shows the difficult relationship between academia and politics, especially when it comes to fundraising. It remains to be seen that due diligence will be conducted in the creation of a Thai Studies program at one of the top ranked universities in the world, and whether the initiative will spawn a multi-disciplinary and critical program that upholds academic freedom or it becomes solely a training ground for Thailand’s political elites.

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as freelance foreign TV correspondent. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.