A Thai Academic in Peril for Speaking Out

Someone apparently wants to harm Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat who is now an associate professor at Kyoto University and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.

For months, Pavin, who teaches at the University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies has led a campaign from outside the country to modify Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté law, which has been used with increasing frequency against critics of the repressive government, and in particular to attempt to free the late political prisoner, Amphon Tangnoppakul, known in Bangkok as Akong.

Akong died of stomach cancer in detention on May 9 after being sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of defaming the Thai monarchy. The 62-year-old retired truck driver was accused of sending four text messages despite the fact that he said he didn’t even know how to use the SMS function on his cellphone.

At the root of the controversy is Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which states: "Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years." It is the most stringent lèse-majesté law on the planet, and it has been used with increasing frequency against critics of the repressive Thai government. The law contains no definition of what constitutes "defamation" or "insult" and charges can be filed by anyone who believes another party has insulted the royalty.

On June 12, Pavin received two anonymous phone calls to his cell phone from someone calling from Thailand. The calls were particularly unsettling because the caller somehow was able to obtain Pavin’s number in Japan.

“He gave me a threat warning,” Pavin said. “Obviously, he knew that I would be returning to Thailand next week. He said, in both phone calls, ‘You bastard! Do you want to get hurt? If you don’t want to get hurt, stop your campaign on Article 112 abolition now.’”

“The person repeatedly said that he may ‘come and get me,’” Pavin said, when he returns to Thailand to speak at Ubon Ratchathani University at the invitation of the university and the European Union Commission in Bangkok (as co-organizer). He is scheduled to give a talk on the impact of Article 112 on the freedom of expression and democracy.

“This is not the first time I have received a threat warning,” Pavin said, after he has collected more than 1,000 expressions of support for modification of the law on Facebook.

“Obviously, the person who threatened me must have followed me closely. He seemed to know my schedule in Thailand. I have been invited to give a number of talks in Thailand this time, at Ubon Ratchathani on 22 June and at Thammasat University on 24 June, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the abolition of the monarchy and the revolution by the Khanarat in 1932.”

Pavin believes he has become an apparent target of the hyper-royalists, which he suspects may involve personalities within the Thai army, which is known to enjoy intimate ties with the royal institution. This shows that the space of freedom of expression in Thailand is fast shrinking, even within the academic community.

“I will not cancel my trip to Thailand and my talks at the two events, as well as at other smaller venues, will go on. So far, I have informed the University of Kyoto, where I am working, of this imminent threat.”

Pavin is hardly the only person to receive such threats. A group of progressive, pro-democracy law academics at Thammasart University who call themselves The Nitirat Group have proposed to modify the Thai constitution to ban coups d’etat and reform the judicial process. They have been called less than human and have been threatened with vigilante violence. They have been told to leave the country and critics have demanded that they be put under surveillance by the military.

Thus this is more than a threat to Pavin. It is a threat to anyone who dares raise any questions about the descending level of freedom of speech in Thailand, a threat that the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai government so far have refused to address.

(John Berthelsen is the editor of the Asia Sentinel.)