(New York) – The Thai government and military authorities should immediately end its crackdown on academic seminars and respect freedom of expression.

On September 18, police appeared at a “Democracy Classroom” seminar at Thammasat University about the end of dictatorial regimes in foreign countries and ordered the seminar to shut down. The police detained four prominent academics—Nidhi Eoseewong, Prajak Kongkirati, Chaowarit Chaowsangrat, and Janjira Sombutpoonsiri—together with three student activists for several hours for organizing the seminar in defiance of an order from the military authorities to cancel the program. Police finally released them without charges.

“While telling the world that they are not dictators, the Thai military authorities are extending their grip into universities and banning discussions about democracy and human rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “Prime Minister Prayuth should immediately end this crackdown on academic freedom and free speech.”

In the order barring the seminar, Col. Noppadon Tawrit, Commander of the Kings Guard’s 1st Field Artillery Regiment, stated that “the seminar may affect the attempts to solve conflicts in the country,” and told the university to stop it “to prevent the resurgence of differences in political attitude.” After the academics and students were released from Klong Luang police station, the military authorities announced that no academic seminar on democracy and political issues can be conducted without prior approval.

The junta apparently perceives any type of differences in political opinions as a threat to stability and national security, Human Rights Watch said. On September 19, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, in answer to media inquiries about the action at Thammasat University, said: “We are working on reconciliation.… This is not a time for them to talk…. They did not get permission to talk. And what did they want talk about? They talked about democracy at Thammasat University. They talked about political issues that we told them not to talk about.”

Since the May 22 coup, the military-led junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has enforced a broad ban on discussion about political issues, including topics related to democracy and human rights. On September 2, the NCPO ordered human rights activists to cancel a panel discussion titled “Access to Justice in Thailand: Currently Unavailable” at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok. On August 8, the military authorities attempted unsuccessfully to stop a seminar about Thailand’s interim constitution at Thammasat University.

On August 10, the military authorities ordered Amnesty International Thailand to stop its campaign activity in Bangkok calling for peace in the Gaza Strip, citing the junta’s prohibition of public assemblies of more than five people and political events.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a party, protects the rights of individuals to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly. The UN committee that oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Thailand is also a party, has advised governments that academic freedom, as an element of the right to education, includes: “the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the State or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction.”

“Thailand is clearly not on a path toward democracy when free speech is censored, criticism is prosecuted, and political activity is prohibited,” Adams said. “The path that such repressive action leads to is dictatorship.”