Thai Generals Go After Exiles and Academics

The Thai Foreign Ministry in Bangkok has called home Thai ambassadors and consuls general from 22 countries in a bid to find ways to work with their host countries to repatriate academics and others critical of the junta.

Many in academic or other posts overseas have been deeply critical of the new regime headed by Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha in the wake of the May 22 coup. The deepening crackdown has forced as many as 350 activists to appear before the junta for “talks” aimed at curbing dissent before being arrested and detained for up to seven days.

A meeting of the ambassadors and consuls general is to be held at the Thai foreign ministry on Wednesday to discuss ways of forcing the return of activists and others who are abroad. An unknown number of activists are said to have fled to Cambodia to avoid the junta.

There are said to be about 15 academics who are targets, according to sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among them is Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University and a regular Asia Sentinel contributor.

Also on the list is Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a fierce critic who has been in exile in the UK for the past several years. Thai-American former political prisoner Joe Gordon, now in the US, is on the list along with Jakrapob Penkair, a leader of the “Red Shirt” United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, who has long been wanted on charges of violating the country’s stringent lese-majeste laws. Jakrapob is an ally of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Local rights groups estimate that some 200 people remain in detention either in Bangkok or other parts of the country including the north and northeast, where support for the ousted Pheu Thai regime headed by former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is strongest.

In a May 25 article in Asia Sentinel, Pavin said he denied the legitimacy of the coup and would refuse to return to Thailand. Sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs say the Thai ambassador in Tokyo and the consul general in Osaka have both been told that if they fail to force the academic to return, they face the prospect of either being transferred or forced out of the foreign service. It is unclear if other foreign service officials have been given the same marching orders.

It is also unclear how Kyoto University will respond to the call from the junta. The Center for Southeast Asian Studies has a reputation for supporting full academic freedom and once offered a fellowship to Aung San Suu Kyi before she entered politics and was put under house arrest by the Burmese junta.

There would seem to be little the Thai Foreign Ministry could actually do to compel its citizens abroad to return home from exile in democratic countries. Those countries would be unlikely to return lawful academics or others to a country that would likely throw them in jail for exercising free speech. Nor is Cambodia, which has strained relations with Thailand, likely to send anybody back.

Observers in Thailand speak of “pressure” being applied on dissidents and critics, with many people afraid to speak out for fear of facing military tribunals with extraordinary power.

“They have told people to keep silent,” said one source. “And most are doing so. They are afraid.”

Some 26 prominent scholars of Thai studies, including Thongchai Winichakul from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a former president of the Association for Asian Studies, signed a letter denouncing the coup, as have a number of Western governments including the United States, Australia and the UK.

The coup also has been condemned by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). In a statement, AHRC said it “unequivocally condemns the coup and wishes to express grave concern about the rapid decline of human rights protections it has engendered. The AHRC calls on the National Peace and Order Maintenance Council to immediately release all citizens being arbitrarily detained without charge and to cease creating public terror by issuing blanket summons to report to the military.”

As Asia Sentinel reported on June 6, the junta is trying to obliterate dissent with its officially concocted "Return Happiness to the Public" strategy. The slogan is repeatedly hailed in banners and broadcasts. The regime will "boost the people's happiness," Radio Thailand promised on June 4.