In Thailand, campaign of fear drives critics out

In Thailand, campaign of fear drives critics out

People said they had little choice but to flee amidst an increasing intolerance of dissent.

Thailand, long the liberal bastion of Southeast Asia, has traditionally been a haven for refugees from its less democratic neighbours. Now, in the wake of a recent coup, a small group of Thai intellectuals are making the reverse journey — heading to Cambodia and other more repressive nations as their own country cracks down on dissent.

A leader of the exile community, Jakrapob Penkair, said dozens of professors, activists and politicians had fled Thailand in recent weeks, as the leaders of the Thai junta detained hundreds of prominent people in what many consider a campaign of fear meant to silence critics or drive them out.

“Lots of us won’t be coming home very soon,” Jakrapob, a former government spokesman, said at a riverside restaurant here in the Cambodian capital, where he has met regularly with other Thai exiles since arriving in 2009. He now hopes to organise some type of resistance to the junta from outside the country, though he said he would have to proceed carefully so as not to put “friendly countries in an awkward position.”

In decades past, the notion of fleeing Thailand for an authoritarian country like Cambodia would have seemed absurd to those accustomed to Thailand’s freedoms, even amid a series of coups. Instead, the relatively wealthy Thailand has been a haven for the oppressed, whether families fleeing the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia four decades ago or persecuted hill tribes in Myanmar escaping attacks by the Burmese military.

That migration continues, but as Thailand has lurched from one political crisis to the next, some said they felt they had had little choice but to flee what they described as increasing intolerance of dissent. Exact numbers are hard to confirm, because many of those who left fear they are being hunted by the Thai military and are wary of revealing their whereabouts.

One of those exiles, Chinawat Haboonpat, a former member of Parliament for the deposed governing party, wrote a message to his supporters on Facebook on May 22, the day the generals seized power in Thailand. “Brothers and sisters, I am not escaping,” he wrote, adding that the former interior minister, Charupong Ruangsuwan, was with him. But Chinawat forgot to turn off a function on Facebook that added his location to the bottom of his message: Toul Kork, Cambodia, a district of Phnom Penh. (The message was later deleted.)

The Thailand the exiles leaving is hardly the picture of a typical military dictatorship. The curfew imposed after the coup has been lifted in tourist areas and is loosely enforced from midnight to 4 am in other parts of the country. Of the scores detained in the early days of the coup, most have been freed, including former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. 

But freedom of expression has been sharply curtailed. 

Thailand’s cacophonous news media has been partly silenced by the military junta, which closely monitors television news and has released detained journalists only under the condition that they not speak out. The junta has also banned gatherings of five people or more — a rule that does not apply to its own attempts to manage the public mood, which have included staging performances in Bangkok titled “Return Happiness to the People.” The shows, which feature women dancing and singing in camouflage miniskirts, were organised by specialists in psychological warfare, according to the Thai news media.

Nearly every evening, the military announces on television the names of people summoned for questioning or detention. Democracy advocates, academics and anyone who speaks publicly about politics watch with anxiety to see if their names have been added to the list of more than 350 people already summoned. Those released from detention are forced to sign an agreement that bars them from taking part in “political movements.”

Army’s threats

“If I violate these conditions or support political activities, I consent to face legal action immediately and consent to the suspension of my financial transactions,” says the military’s document, which the coup makers posted on their Facebook page. The army has threatened to try dissenters in military courts.

Some of those who have been summoned are affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother and a former prime minister, who was deposed in a 2006 coup. Thaksin founded the highly successful populist movement that the military is seeking to dismantle. On Wednesday, the junta issued a summons for Jakrapob, the exile in Cambodia who is helping organise others who have fled. Jakrapob served in one of Thaksin’s governments and maintains ties with Thaksin, who is also in exile.

But also among those who have fled are researchers and commentators who, although outspoken, were not involved in politics. Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained lawyer who has criticised recent court decisions against Thaksin’s supporters that he saw as politicised, left for London after, he said, a man riding on the back of a motorcycle fired shots into his house. “I have to admit,” Verapat said in a YouTube video uploaded after he left, “I am not sure I would be safe in Thailand.” Verapat said he had no connection to Thaksin and had never spoken with him.

Many members of the Bangkok establishment and the urban middle class supported the coup. They saw it as an effective way to scrub the country of the influence of Thaksin, whose movement has broad support in the countryside — thanks in large part to policies, like subsidies for farmers, that the Bangkok elite consider wasteful. Verapat and many intellectuals saw new elections as the answer to the impasse. But earlier this year, opponents of the government run by Yingluck disrupted attempts to hold elections, which the party was widely expected to win.

In an indication of the passions in Thailand, Verapat’s Facebook page has both supportive comments and invective from backers of the coup. “I think a person like you should die abroad and never return to this country,” read a comment under the name Tanan Tanaratanapisit. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai scholar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University in Japan, said he and many colleagues outside Thailand were afraid to return.

 “Most academics I know have left the country,” Pavin said. “It is no longer safe for them.” He called the military’s summoning of professors and intellectuals “a cunning strategy of the coup makers in creating a climate of fear rather than to launch a brutal crackdown against their critics.”

Even some people who are not public figures said they found the current political environment stifling, especially what they described as online “witch hunts” by coup supporters targeting those who call for elections. “I think there will be problems in this country for a generation or two,” said the owner of a catering business in Bangkok who is looking to move to Taiwan. “I’d like to get out of the country safely.”