In the past month, since the Thai military overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in the 19th coup since Thailand abolished its absolute monarchy in 1932, I became a fugitive.
The official rationale for the coup was to restore peace and order after months of protest against a government accused of widespread corruption. But, as in the past, the real reason it was launched was to defend the interests of elites allied with the monarchy. Over more than six decades on the throne, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has worked intimately with the military to fashion a politics in which civilian governments are kept weak and vulnerable to the threat of a coup, should they overstep their bounds. In this latest putsch, the coup-makers dissolved the Senate, transferred anti-coup bureaucrats to inactive posts and took full control of the executive and judicial branches. Political protest has been banned. The army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has appointed himself acting prime minister.
Immediately after the coup, the military issued orders calling for politicians, activists and certain media personalities to report to the authorities. Many academics, especially those known to have spoken critically of the coup, also were summoned. Failing to appear would incur at least a two-year imprisonment.
My name was on that list. I have denounced the legitimacy of the coup, and I refuse to take orders from despots. I will not turn myself in and could be sentenced to jail as a result. I will not be able to return home in the foreseeable future. For now, I will remain in Japan, both out of concern for my personal safety, should I return to my home country, and to maintain the freedom to do my work. It is painful to learn that I am barred from seeing my family in Bangkok.
Sadly, threatening independent academics is not new in Thailand. From 1958 to 1963, under the authoritarian rule of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, university lecturers and other intellectuals were commonly arrested for speaking against the regime. Today’s coup leaders have simply adopted Sarit’s tactics, but they have gone a step further: Academics are being hunted down not just because they disapprove of the militarization of politics but also for criticizing the king, who is protected from insult or threat by Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté law.
Nonetheless, some Thai academics, including myself, have refused to be constrained. As an academic, I see it as obligatory to thoroughly debate the role of the monarchy in politics. As a Thai citizen, I feel an urgent need to advocate for the abolition of this dubious law, which violates the basic human rights of the Thai people. The long years of the king’s politicization are a necessary and proper subject for scholars attempting to understand the root cause of the failure of Thai democracy. The taboo on discussion of the king has severely narrowed the space for academic discourse.
The edicts of the coup leaders represent an escalation of a simmering conflict. In 2011, I launched a nationwide campaign to abolish the lèse-majesté law. In the months that followed, I received threatening phone calls, warnings to stop talking about the monarchy. Now come summonses and the threat of jail.
Since the coup, I have also been critical of the military’s moves, challenging its claim that it will strive toward serious political reform and promote democratization. In reality, all the military has done is create a climate of fear, seeking to use its overwhelming power to silence critics through harassment and detention. In recent weeks, the Foreign Ministry has called on Thai diplomats abroad to work with their host countries to repatriate academics and others critical of the coup, placing them into the hands of the junta. On June 13, the National Council for Peace and Order — a coup governing body — issued a warrant for my arrest.
To the outside world, Thailand may seem a charming “land of smiles,” but this is an illusion. To the U.S. government, Thailand is a close ally, and Washington has continued to work through its Cold War-era links to the military and inside the walls of the palace despite the coup. This is a missed opportunity, given how new forces on Thailand’s political landscape could help promote democracy. To date, the reaction from the world has been far too muted. Stronger words and actions are needed to prevent a further erosion of human rights. What will it take for the international community to take a stand for freedom?
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.