On February 24, just a few hours before my lecture at Oxford University began, I received a message from my sister who lives in Bangkok requesting me to contact her urgently. Upon contacting her, she informed me in a distressed voice that the military had sent four officers to my house in Bangkok.
As someone who has been outspoken on the sensitive issue of the future of the Thai monarchy and criticized the current ruling junta, I have been used to being personally subjected to such harassment. In the aftermath of the coup of 2014, because I had long been critical of the military and the monarchy, the junta decided to summon me – twice –for an “attitude adjustment,” a euphemism for a coercive dressing down of regime critics. When I rejected the summons since I did not accept the legitimacy of the coup, the junta proceeded to issue a warrant for my arrest and revoke my passport, forcing me to apply for refugee status in Japan where I taught at Kyoto University before taking up a fellowship at the University of Cambridge.
But far from restricting itself to just punishing me, the military has continued to harass my family in Bangkok despite the fact that they have nothing to do with my academic work or personal views on Thai politics and the monarchy. This was not the first time the military intimidated my family – army officers visited my house twice last year, seeking to harass my family so that it would prevent me from challenging the authorities back home. But the incident on February 24 was the most daring move yet. Apart from sending officers to my home, the military also called up my sister at her workplace twice, ordering her to inform me that if I did not stop discussing the Thai monarchy, my family would have to “pay the price” for my activities outside Thailand. The military also demanded that my entire family in Bangkok report themselves to an army camp, and that, if they failed to do so, there would be another visit.
While I personally remain concerned for my family in Thailand and am working to ensure their safety from across the world in Britain, I am not alone in this. Other academics like myself who are in exile overseas, such as Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Suda Rangkuphan, are suffering the same fate, with their families back in Thailand intimidated or harassed (though, in my case, the military has summoned my entire family). Renowned journalist Pravit Rojanapruk has also been repeatedly summoned for his critical views of the military.
Meanwhile, the political situation in Thailand has continued to worsen, which does not bode well for Thais who are in the country either. The latest draft of the constitution seems to serve the political interests of the old guard rather than to help consolidate democracy in the country. The majority of the Thai public no doubt recognizes it for what it is: a way to prevent strong political parties whose views are not aligned with the military – especially those with ties to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – from returning to power. At the same time, an election has been repeatedly delayed, and even if it is eventually held, the outcome might still be rigged just enough to ensure that the old guard prevails. Freedoms remain curbed, with activists being harassed.
In an environment where the ruling junta remains both nervous about an impending royal succession as well as determined to reconfigure the political process to ensure an outcome consistent with its own views, anyone viewed as a menace to the monarchy and a nuisance to the regime has been dealt with harshly. What has happened to me and my family could happen to anyone.
Yet the Western countries who regularly posture about democracy and human rights have been reluctant to punish the junta. The United States in particular has worried too much about geopolitics, fearing that being too harsh on the junta may cause it to move closer into China’s embrace. As a result, Washington’s promotion of democracy in Thailand has increasingly seemed like empty rhetoric, with the Obama administration caring more about working with an undemocratic regime rather than working for the rights of the Thai people. The decision to downgrade but still hold the recently concluded Cobra Gold exercises and to resume a high-level bilateral strategic dialogue in spite of these abuses are just two cases in point.
Unless the international community fully holds Thailand’s junta accountable for these democratic transgressions, I fear that stories like mine will continue to surface.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He is currently a Beaufort Visiting Scholar at St John’s College, University of Cambridge.