Safe Haven

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Thai alum finds asylum at the UW.

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Yukti Mukdawijitra first came to the UW as a doctoral student. He returned last year seeking political asylum and is currently a visiting professor in anthropology. Photo: Narayan Mahon.

When Yukti Mukdawijitra MA’00, PhD’07 made his first trip to UW-Madison, it was to complete his education. His second was to find safety. A native of Thailand, the professor of Vietnamese studies secured a spot as a guest professor at the UW when he fled political persecution in his homeland.

Thailand has been wracked by political crises since a military coup overthrew the Southeast Asian nation’s democratically elected government in 2006. Protests led to violence and crackdowns, and in May 2014, a new military government imposed martial law. The regime pursues strict censorship, using a broad interpretation of Section 112 of the nation’s criminal code. That section is a law of lèse-majesté, allowing prosecution of anyone accused of insulting Thailand’s royal family.

Mukdawijitra became politically active after finishing his doctorate and returning to Thailand. “I wrote a newspaper column,” he says. “It was about anthropology and rituals, but also about politics and social criticism.”

According to Mukdawijitra, the military government broadened its use of Section 112 to include not only direct insults to the king and queen, but also any statements — not only published statements, but private communications, and even text messages — that were critical of the government.

“A person was accused that he sent texts insulting the king and the queen,” he says. “There were four messages. He was charged with four violations of Section 112, and given a sentence of twenty years.”

Mukdawijitra and his colleagues led a campaign to reform the lèse-majesté law. After the recent coup, he came to feel that his activities and column put him in jeopardy, and he sought escape in exile. He fled to Vietnam, where he had done research, and while he was there, American friends told him about the Institute of International Education (IIE). Best known for administering the Fulbright Scholars Program, IIE supports international academic exchange. It offers a Scholar Rescue Fund, which enables politically persecuted academics to receive one-year teaching appointments at American universities. IIE helped Mukdawijitra land a spot at the UW, where he currently teaches anthropology. Though his appointment runs out this May, there’s no sign of change in Thailand, where censorship and repression continue.

“It’s very complicated to extend my stay in the United States,” Mukdawijitra says. “And if I can’t, then I’ll go back and work in Thailand, to the extent that I’m able to.”

Published in the Spring 2015 issue

Tags: Faculty, history, International, Social sciences, Teaching and learning

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