By: John Berthelsen

The elimination of Thai dissidents across the border in Laos has reached a critical level. The past five years have seen a growing number of victims of vicious hunts. The 2014 coup which wiped out the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra produced hundreds of exiles. Most took to Thailand’s neighbors as their sanctuary, either legally or illegally.

Noticeably, the mounting abduction and killing of Thai dissidents has coincided with the end of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the governing body of the coup. Thai dissidents have continued to challenge the regime in Bangkok. When one party in a conflict is killed, there is good reason to suspect the other in the dispute may have a hand in the killings.

Against this backdrop, according to Kyoto police, on July 8, at 4:45 am, a masked man in black broke into the apartment of Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a prominent Thai dissident, where he lives in exile in Japan. He and his partner were asleep. The perpetrator attacked them, police said, spraying them with a chemical substance.  Although they chased the perpetrator, he made a successful escape although he left a hammer.

Immediately, Pavin told police, he felt a burning sensation on his skin. Shortly, the police arrived. The two were taken to an emergency room to receive treatment. The doctor later said the chemical substance was not lethal. The two were told to stay away from Kyoto and put in a safe house.

The Japanese police have not reached a conclusion as to who was behind the attack. However, the disappearance of other Thai dissidents is unnerving and is reason for deep concern. As Asia Sentinel reported on April 22, 2017, credible sources reported that the new king would seek to “manage” him, which in Thai vernacular usually means he would seek to kill his critic.

Most of the victims who have disappeared were hardcore Red Shirts, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. Generally, Red Shirts are known to be supporters of Yingluck’s brother, the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who himself was also toppled in a coup in 2006. However, not all red shirts share the same political objectives. Their ideological spectrum spreads from pacifist to subversive. It is the hardcore members who, in the aftermath of the coup, fled Thailand to avoid prosecution.

The first two disappeared from Laos. Ittipon Sukpan, also known as DJ Sunho, went missing in June 2016. Wuthipong Kochathammakun, alias Kotee, also vanished without trace in July 2017. Both were strident anti-junta and anti-monarchist figures and engaged in “underground” operations. Ittipon rose to fame after releasing a series of YouTube videos ferociously criticizing the Thai monarchy, a much-revered institution protected by the draconian lèse-majesté law. His colleague, Kotee, was also a fierce critic of the royal institution.

Kotee was also accused of involvement in the arms trade. Some weapons were allegedly used during political demonstrations by the red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) in 2010. Until today, the two dissidents have not been found.

In December 2018, news of the disappearance of three more dissidents in Laos was widespread among Thai social media users. One of them was a prominent ex-communist and anti-monarchist, Surachai Danwattananuson. He went missing alongside two of his assistants, Kraidej Leulert and Chatchan Bubpawan. Surachai joined Thaksin’s party and set up the Red Siam movement in 2006. In 2011, he was imprisoned for lèse-majesté, but received a royal pardon two years later before running away after the coup.

On Dec. 23, three bodies were found floating in the Mekong River at the Thai-Lao border. The autopsy of the first two bodies confirmed the identity of Kraidej and Chatchan. The third body that was found mysteriously disappeared. It was believed to have been Surachai’s.

In May this year, in a separate case, three dissidents were reported to have been arrested by Vietnamese authorities and eventually extradited to Thailand. They are Chucheep Cheevasuth, widely known as Uncle Sanam Luang, together with Siam Thiravut and Krisana Thapthai. Chucheep was among the most wanted refugees, charged with lèse-majesté because of his openly anti-monarchist attitude. Broadcasting from the underground against the monarchy, Chucheep moved from Laos to Vietnam to avoid the assassination. To this date, nobody knows the fate of the three dissidents.

Meanwhile, Praphan Pipithnamporn, a Thai dissident who was in the process of applying for refugee status with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in Malaysia was deported and is now likely to face charges over her anti-monarchy views. Her case casts doubt over the democratic credentials of the new Mahathir Mohamad government and further erodes the democratic upholding of ASEAN of which the two countries are members.

These dissidents may represent a minuscule faction of hardcore red shirts. Yet their voices were powerful in the age of social media. These events coincide with the fragile royal transition through which the anxiety among the royalist elite was palpable. They feared that the anti-monarchy element could galvanize the Thai public, hence a precarious menace to the royal institution.

The sizable following of these dissidents on social media play a part in their continued abduction and killings. In other words, the more prominent they became, the more they were perceived as a threat, which must be eliminated. Those such as Surachai or Uncle Sanam Luang presented themselves as alternative sources of information, particularly related to the monarchy. Thus, in some ways, this is a psychological war as much as the real war on the ground.

Back in Laos, a group of musicians-cum-dissents under the name Faiyen has for weeks sought urgent evacuation from the imminent threat from across the Thai border. They claimed that the Thai state was coming after them. #SaveFaiyen was among top hashtags on Twitter last month.

In Thailand, at least three pro-democracy political activists have repeatedly been attacked by unknown men. One of them, Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat, was seriously assaulted in broad daylight. The police have so far failed to arrest the perpetrators.

Pavin has long been a critic of the Thai monarchy. After the coup in May 2014, he was summoned by authorities. A warrant was issued for his arrest shortly afterward. His passport was revoked, forcing him to apply for a refugee with Japan. His family in Bangkok was harassed.

In the past months, he says, he has continued to criticize the monarchy, particularly concerning the current trend of eliminating critics of the king. With almost 180,000 followers on Facebook, his criticisms of the monarchy have caused an impact.

The palace has a kind of “killing unit,” known to be headed by General Jakrapob Puridej, who is a personal security guard of the king. Jakrapob was the one behind a team sent to harass my family in Bangkok.

While the police in Japan have reached no conclusion over who might have been in his apartment on July 8, the incident is cause for concern. He believes the attack a stern warning from the Thai palace. The new government in Thailand recently declared itself to be a democracy. There is little to show for that beyond Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s words.