In search of academic freedom

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Siam in Crisis by Sulak Sivaraksa. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

A temple is more than a place of worship. Located on a bank of the Chao Phraya River, Wat Thong Noppakhun offers food for thought in democracy. Surrounded by leafy trees, its library now houses a large number of unofficial history books, some of which are controversial in what remains a conservative society.

Inspired by the Siamese Revolution, a group of university students recently launched the 1932 People Space Library project in the Klong San neighborhood to promote open discussion about the country’s recent history. As the old saying goes, history repeats itself. The library is located in the same temple where their predecessors once met.

“My friend made an interesting point that we don’t really have libraries for people. There are only a few libraries in the capital where no one cares to use them,” said Saran Satchanon, one of the founders of the library. “In the current political climate, what kind of library should we make for those who have no access to education? It should be open to everyone.

The founders, including Saran, Apinan Pattanasiri, Kittiwat Uengcharoen and Chanin Wongsri, spared no effort in their search for locations until Sulak Sivaraksa, a prominent social critic, allowed them to use the Patranusorn library in the temple. , which is under his responsibility. care. A new collection of over 200 books came from various sources, bringing the total to over 2,000 items.

(Photo: Thana Boonlert)

“We chose the temple library because not only did its earlier books suit our tastes, but its simple design and warm atmosphere make it a good place to spread ideas,” he said. “It houses many books in the arts and social sciences because we want to present alternative history to counter state propaganda.”

Visitors can browse a wide range of influential books from Siam Mapped: A History of a Nation’s Geo-Body by Thongchai Winichakul, a historian who was a student leader on October 6, 1976, for Prawattisat Thi Phueng Sang (Newly built story) by Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a historian living in exile in France to escape lèse-majesté charges.

“We don’t have the freedom to read all types of books,” Apinan said. “A teacher once told me that we are half-blind in the Thai education system. We are hidden from the truth. With this library, new generations can decide their future without being influenced by certain values.”

The project is inspired by the Siamese Revolution of 1932. Supported by the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party), it marked the transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. In October 2020, various protest groups merged with the Khana Ratsadon, calling for the ousting of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, a rewrite of the charter, and reform of the monarchy.

Unlike other libraries, conversation, especially about politics, is allowed in the 1932 People Space Library, rekindling the atmosphere of a coffeehouse forum. A long table, occupied by books, is provided for the debate.

Kittiwat said it was open to visitors regardless of political background. Many guests come here to discuss a wide range of topics from banned books to socialism.

“Even a monk visited this library. If you meet him elsewhere, you should treat him with respect, but here we are on equal footing. For example, we could talk about the monk’s cost of living and his view of the monastic community. ,” he said. “I hope this kind of library will spread throughout the country.”

Chanin echoed the same view. He would like to create a public space where academic freedom is respected.

“Knowledge should not be banned. Many books have been banned, such as Jit Phumisak’s. Academic freedom must exist at all costs. We will fight and campaign for social development through the library.”

The project plans to collect a full range of history books from the popular uprising of October 14, 1973 to contemporary politics beginning in 2006. It plans to organize monthly conferences on topics of interest and exhibitions of ‘art. Besides financial support, the founders receive donations and sell books to finance the upkeep of the library.

When the library opened on January 22, the next day plainclothes police reportedly seized Nitarn Wad Wang, anti-112 stickers and a red flag without a search warrant. However, authorities later dismissed them, calling it a misunderstanding. The incident occurred after police raided the Fah Diew Kan publishing house on January 20.

A model photo of the founders of the People Space Library from 1932. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

Among the contributors to the Rattasart 14 journal are renowned personalities such as Charnvit Kasetsiri, MR Seni Pramoj, Pridi Banomyong, Kulab Saipradit and Sulak Sivaraksa. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

In fact, an intellectual movement led by young people is not something new. Sulak Sivaraksa, a highly respected scholar, explained how his diary, Paritha of Sangkhomsat (Social Science Journal), paved the way for the emergence of the Yuwachon Siam (Siamese Youth), a group of progressive students in the 1970s.

“The crackdown on political dissidents intensified under the dictatorial regime of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat. At the time, I was living in the UK. Upon my return, I founded Sangkhomsat Parithat [in 1963]. However, years of repression have sparked great interest among university students,” he said.

Sulak said his participation in public lectures led him to use an ancient temple to hold discussion groups inside Wat Bowonniwet. He has invited renowned speakers like Sanya Dharmasakti and Puey Ungphakorn. It was followed by Sapa Na Dome at Thammasat University, Sapa Gafae at Kasetsart University and others.

On the shelf are rare books, including a translation of Maxim Gorky’s Mother by Jit Phumisak. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

“As David Morell and Chai-anan said, the popular uprising of October 14, 1973 began with a small step like this. Subsequently, Pracha Hutanuwatra and his friends founded a new group, Yuwachon Siam, and gathered for the first time in Pathum. Thani,” he said.

Kullacheep Worapong, a member of the late Yuwachon Siam, said the students once met at Phra Maha Sathianphong Wannapok’s cabin at Wat Thong Noppakhun. Influenced by Komol Keemthong, a teacher who was murdered, they founded the group, organized development camps and published a newspaper, Yuwathaton education and socialism.

“They were Nicholas Bennett, Julias Nyerere and Paulo Freire. It was only after the popular uprising of October 14, 1973 that the influence of socialism began to dominate. Then it became part of the left” , did he declare. “It declined due to conflicts of interest. Many members joined the Communist Party. It ended when the October 6, 1976 massacre occurred.”

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