The Case of Thailand’s Disappearing Dissidents

At 4:45 a.m. on July 8, a man wearing black and a mask broke into my apartment in Kyoto. He walked into my bedroom, attacked me and my partner with a chemical spray and escaped. Nothing was stolen. The Japanese police arrived quickly. The investigation is ongoing; the perpetrator has not been apprehended.

No official conclusion has been reached about who executed, much less orchestrated, the attack, but it matched a trend of harassment — and sometimes abduction and even killing — targeting anti-monarchist Thai dissidents overseas.

The 2014 military coup against the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra prompted hundreds of people to flee Thailand and go into exile, especially among supporters of Ms. Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, also a former prime minister who was deposed. Many backers of the Shinawatras, the so-called red shirts, went to neighboring countries seeking sanctuary, legally or not.

I am a political scientist and have long been critical of the Thai monarchy. Just days after the 2014 coup, I was summoned by the junta. I did not go. A warrant was issued for my arrest. My passport was revoked. I was already residing in Japan then, and I was forced to apply for refugee status there. My relatives in Bangkok were harassed by military officers. I believe that the attack against me this summer, in my home in Japan, was a warning for my continuing to hold, and express, my positions.

It was a terrifying event, and yet it hardly compares to the treatment some Thai activists abroad have faced.

The Case of Thailand’s Disappearing DissidentsTo my knowledge, the first two dissidents to disappear vanished from Laos. Ittipon Sukpaen, also known as DJ Sunho, went missing in June 2016. Wuthipong Kochathamakun, alias Kotee, was kidnapped by 10 men in black from his Vientiane home in July 2017. Both men were stridently against the junta and the monarchy.

DJ Sunho rose to fame after releasing a series of YouTube videos ferociously attacking the Thai royal family. Kotee, was also a fierce critic, and he claimed to be training “civilian warriors” against the military government. He was accused of dealing in weapons, including some that the authorities say were used during red-shirt demonstrations in 2010. Some observers claim that Kotee was set up.

The two dissidents have still not been found. The Thai army has denied any involvement in the disappearance of DJ Sunho. The governments of Thailand and Laos have ignored calls from international organizations such as Human Rights Watch to seriously investigate the abduction of Kotee.

Notably, cases of this kind have multiplied since last winter, as the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta behind the 2014 coup, was preparing for a general election this spring, the first in eight years. After voting was held in March — after many delays, under a new undemocratic constitution and with many irregularities — a new government, nominally, was elected. But the real power holders have remained the same. Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general who led the 2014 takeover, is still prime minister.

Even as the government continues to stay in power, though, judging by its tactics against activists, it seems anything but secure.

In mid-December 2018, news came that three more dissidents in Laos had disappeared. One of them was the prominent ex-communist and anti-monarchist Surachai Danwattananusorn. He went missing with two of his assistants, Kraidej Leulert and Chatchan Bubpawan. Mr. Surachai had joined Mr. Thaksin’s party in 2006 and set up the Red Siam group, a militant faction of the red-shirt movement. In early 2012, he was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for lèse-majesté. He received a royal pardon in late 2013. He fled Thailand after the coup.

In late December, two bodies, cut open and stuffed with concrete, were found in the Mekong River at the Thai-Lao border. The Thai Institute of Forensic Medicine confirmed the identities of Mr. Kraidej and Mr. Chatchan. The whereabouts of Mr. Surachai are unknown.

Then in May, three dissidents reportedly were arrested by the Vietnamese authorities and secretly extradited to Thailand. They are Chucheep Chiwasut, widely known as Uncle Sanam Luang, Siam Theerawut and Kritsana Thapthai. Mr. Chucheep is among the exiles charged with lèse-majesté who were the most wanted by the Thai authorities. He regularly broadcast underground internet shows against the monarchy from Laos, until, fearing assassination, he tried to move to Vietnam.

The fate of the three men is unknown. Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan of Thailand has denied they were ever extradited by Vietnam.

After this spate of cases, the four members of the folk band Faiyen, known for its lyrics mocking the Thai monarchy, sought to urgently leave Laos, where they have lived in exile since 2014. They said they feared the Thai state would come after them next — a claim that the Thai Defense Ministry has denied and shrugged off. (In August, the band managed to fly to Paris, to seek asylum in France.)

The Thai government consistently rejects any accusation that it may be involved in any such repression abroad. (And it denies any responsibility to do with instances of brazen assaults against activists in Thailand — such as Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat — after which the police fail to make any arrests or, it seems, to do much investigating.) Laos, for its part, typically refuses to acknowledge the disappearance of Thai dissidents.

That the Thai activists who have disappeared or been killed abroad number around a dozen may seem like a small number. But in the age of social media, their voices — potent alternatives to the official line — carried far, echoing with vast crowds.

On Sunday, a pro-democracy political network known as the June 24 group (named for the day in 1932 when Thailand became a constitutional monarchy) gathered in Bangkok to honor Mr. Surachai and live-streamed their talks. Several dozen people attended, some wearing red shirts and at times raising a hand with three fingers extended, a symbol of the fight for democracy (and a reference to “The Hunger Games”). It was a somber reminder of the disappearances of Mr. Surachai and other dissidents. But it also was an implicit rebuke to the government. Just last week, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, the army chief, lashed out at “communists” supposedly out to “overthrow the monarchy.”

The generals who continue to rule Thailand may have managed to oversee, as they had hoped, the country’s royal transition after the death of the long-serving King Bhumibol Adulyadej in late 2016. But they have less legitimacy than ever — and they know it.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor of political science at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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