Exiled Thai academic accuses military junta of threatening his family

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on February 25, 2016

The Thai military has allegedly threatened the family of self-exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Associate Professor at the Center for South East Asian Studies at Kyoto University and currently a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge.

The scholar wrote on his Facebook profile on Wednesday evening that army officers have appeared at his house and called one of his sisters, demanding them to tell Pavin to "stop all activities overseas" – especially "talking about the monarchy" – or else his "family will have to bear the consequences" and demanded his entire family to "report themselves at the army camp".

AFP's Southeast Asia correspondent Jerome Taylor tweeted Thursday that junta spokesperson Colonel Winthai Suvaree told the agency that he had no information on authorities' contact with Pavin's family.

Pavin is known for his outspokenness on Thai politics – including the monarchy – and even more so since the Thai military summoned him among hundreds of other academics, politicians and journalists in the aftermath of the 2014 coup, while he was based in Japan at that time. He openly refused to comply and, in his typical mischievous online manner, replied mockingly on Facebook if he could send his pet dog instead.

Shortly thereafter, the military junta revoked Pavin's passport, practically exiling him. But that didn't stop him from slamming them in numerous opinion pieces in the foreign press and also traveling abroad, giving lectures and participating in academic events discussing the current state of Thai politics. One of these events was this Wednesday on the future of the Thai monarchy at Oxford University, which was the likely cause for the Thai military's alleged harassment of Pavin's family. In the past, Pavin has accused Thai authorities, through their consulates and embassies, to have attempted to sabotage these public events either by discouraging Thai students from attending or pressuring the hosting universities to cancel.

Furthermore, Thai authorities have attempted to ask Japan to extradite Pavin on the premise that not only did he not comply with the military summons, but also that some of his articles were deemed "insulting to the monarchy" or lèse majesté, an offense punishable with up to 15 years in jail and rigorously (ab)used under the current military government. The junta has also asked other countries like New Zealand and France for extradition of lèse majesté suspects that have fled Thailand.

Public seminar on ‘Democracy and Freedom of Expression’ in Ubon Ratchathani

By Saksith Saiyasombut There were a few events and discussion panels on freedom of speech and how the lèse majesté laws is heavily contributing to the continuous deterioration of that in Thailand in recent years. There was the panel discussion with Sulak, Pravit, Marshall and Anderson hosted by Siam Voices contributor Lisa Gardner, then at the FCCT (where the former event was initially supposed to take place) held an event with Professor Tongchai Winichakul and Professor Andrew Walker earlier this week. Also, Al Jazeera English devoted a whole episode of their weekly "101 East" program on Thailand's draconian Article 112 (lèse majesté), including a panel talk with Sulak, a hapless Panitan Wattanayagorn (government spokesperson under Abhisit and now back being an academic) and the dimwitted statements of Dr. Tul Sitthisomwong (leader of the reactionary, pro-112 multi color shirts).

On this coming Friday there's another public event, that discusses all of the above. However, this time it is a little bit different: First off it takes place in Ubon Ratchathani, and secondly it widens the scope not only on lèse majesté, but also on whether or not democratic values, human rights and personal freedom are actually compatible with Thai culture. The speakers are well-known to regular observers and readers:  Thitinan Pongsudhirak, one of the most quoted academic on Thai politics, Prachatai's Chiranuch "Jiew" Premchaiporn, Preut Taotawin and Pavin Chachavalpongpun, currently one of the most active academics and also a staunch activist against 112 - not without consequences. The even is hosted by Dr. Titipol Phakdeewanich, academic and Bangkok Post contributor.

Blurb down here or on the Facebook event page.

A Public Seminar: ‘Democracy and Freedom of Expression’ (in Thai only)

Friday the 22nd of June 2012, from 9.00 am – 1.30 pm Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University

The event is funded by the European Union (EU)

The seminar aims to promote a better understanding of the ways in which democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights are interconnected and cannot be separated if there is to be effective and tangible progress in this regard. The dialogue on this topic will aim towards a clear understanding of the importance of long-term goals in providing a sense of direction and purpose in relation to the promotion of the levels of both political participation and political awareness of the Thai population.

Since the 2006 coup d'état, we have continued to observe the problem of having human rights being more properly respected in a country, which has developed increasingly entrenched colour-code politics. Furthermore, the debate over the reform of ‘Article 112’ has become highly politicised, which has acted to distract from the key principle of promoting human rights.

08.30 – 09.00 am Registration and Coffee

09.00 – 09.20 am Welcoming remarks: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Chaiyan Ratchakul, Dean of the Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University

09.20 – 10.45 am: Speakers

"The importance of freedom of expression in a democratic society" Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

"Freedom of the media in Thailand: challenges and prospects" Ms. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, Director of Prachatai

"Freedom of Expression: Does it exist in Thailand?" Dr. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Associate Professor at the Centre for South-east Asian Studies, Kyoto University, Japan

"Grassroots perspectives on freedom of expression and democracy in Thailand" Assistant Professor. Preut Taotawin, Lecturer at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Ubon ratchathani University

Moderator Dr. Titipol Phakdeewanich, Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University

10.45 – 1.30 am: Q & A, Discussion

Analysis: Is Thailand's military compromising for the sake of reconciliation?

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 18, 2012 The East Asia Forum recently published a column on the current political role of Thailand's military written by John Blaxland, Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University with 30 years of service experience with the Australian Military and also a graduate of the Royal Thai Army Command and Staff College. In short: Dr. Blaxland has lots of military experience.

In the column, also republished in The Australian, he criticizes "the classic Western liberal tendency of painting complex situations in black-and-white terms" where the Thai military is being portrayed power-hungry, coup-happy force. Blaxland takes the 2006 military coup and its consequences as precedence for the Thai armed forces to be hesitant to stage another one, despite repeated cycles of rampant rumors.

Blaxland assumes that the military acted on their own in September 2006, although many heavily disagree with this notion. He also notes that the 2008 change of government was merely an act among political parties, not mentioning the fact that the Democrat-Bhum Jai Thai coalition was reportedly brokered in the residence of then-army chief General Anupong Paochinda and in presence of his successor and then-chief-of-staff General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

However, the key part of this column is this:

Some say that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has had little success in pushing for greater civilian control over the military since this time. But there has been some change, most notably through the appointment of a pro-Thaksin general as defence minister. In addition, the new army chief, General Prayuth Chan-o-Cha, has avoided overstepping constitutional boundaries and has been largely compliant — despite some bluster and a perception that he would be harsher than his predecessor, General Anupong.

There are now several possible scenarios for the future. It appears the military has arrived at a point of recognition — that they have to maintain stability, particularly until the royal succession is completed. That means they may have to compromise a little — and the military has publicly shown respect for the elected government. This respect has been reciprocated through placatory actions and statements by the Yingluck administration.

"Reconsidering the role of the military in Thailand", by John Blaxland, East Asia Forum, April 26, 2012

One problem with Blaxland's assessment on Thailand's military is that he views the armed forces as a monolithic organization, while in reality it has always been factionalized between different regiments and army prep school classes - key factors when it comes to the annual reshuffles and promotions. Rivalries between these are often a source for potential inner-circle conflict, as the issue with the so-called 'watermelon soldiers' during the 2010 red shirt protests have shown. Although there are now measures being undertaken to address this issue like wide-reaching surveys and supporting promotions of officers from other classes.

But there is one major omission (deliberately or not) by Blaxland on the role of the Thai military in the political landscape: the top priority of Thailand's armed forces is to serve and protect the monarchy (see above), which has been repeatedly emphasized under current army chief Prayuth more than ever, who sees Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters as its biggest threat.

Even before the election victory of Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party there have been talks between Thaksin's camp, the military and representatives of the palace to broker a deal, which is now being widely regarded as a détente between the current government and the military:

Since then Yingluck Shinawatra, Mr. Thaksin’s younger sister, has governed. Under her premiership, an uneasy truce has taken hold, but crucial steps are needed before Thailand can arrive at a genuine reconciliation among competing political factions and the military after years of protracted tumult.

Under the current unspoken truce terms, the Yingluck government has gone out of its way not to challenge the army’s high command and to ensure the monarchy remains sacrosanct in Thailand’s hierarchical society. Challenges against the monarchy must be put down through draconian lese-majeste laws. In return, she gets to rule without the crippling street protests by colorful royalists as happened in the recent past and Mr. Thaksin has to remain in exile.

"Thitinan: From Truce to Reconciliation in Thailand", by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2012

In short, the military will not intervene in the Yingluck administration and potentially also tolerate a return of Thaksin to Thailand, while the government will not try to upset the military officers by actions such as prosecuting those involved in the killings of red shirt protesters in 2010. Another key issue that will not be touched is the lèse majesté law, as Yingluck herself has repeatedly stated that her government will not amend the draconian Article 112. Even the recent death of 'Uncle SMS' in prison could not sway her, much to the dismay of her supporter base.

Blaxland also overestimates the appointment of Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwannathat as the defense minister, despite his closeness to Thaksin, since there are laws that gives the military the upper hand, such as the Defence Ministry Administration Act (sic!):

Gen Prayuth is under the protection of the Defence Ministry Administration Act which has been in effect from the time Privy Councillor Gen Surayud Chulanont became prime minister after the 2006 coup. This law is specifically designed to block politicians from tampering with reshuffle decisions made by the armed forces.

The act does not give power to the defence minister in calling the shots in military appointments and promotions. Its Article 25 places leaves that task with the Defence Committee to make decisions on military reshuffles.

The panel comprises the defence minister, a deputy minister, the permanent secretary for defence, the supreme commander and the three armed forces chiefs army, air force and navy. At present there is no deputy defence minister, so the committee has only six members. At the committee's meetings, all officers to be reshuffled must have the signed approval of all panel members _ except the defence minister's; he must act as chairman of the meeting so that later, in his capacity as defence minister, he cannot make any changes to the list when it goes to the cabinet. According to the act, once the list is approved by the committee, it has to be left untouched.

"Tigers of the East secure a roaring hurrah", Bangkok Post, October 6, 2011

There are attempts at the moment to amend the Defence Ministry Administration Act by defense minister Sukampol - whether or not this will pass is an entirely different matter, let alone how the military will react on it. And in general, the current relative tranquility between the military and the civilian side is only because the lines have been clearly drawn and any overstepping of these boundaries of authority will be met with scorn.

This is a status quo that is being upheld as a necessary inconvenience (and in that regard Blaxland is right) between the two in order for a smooth royal succession - which does not mean however that all factions are not preparing quietly to be in the best position for the time after that. These are the shades of grey in the Thai political landscape that are not to be left in the pitch-black darkness.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.

Thammasat University split as it debates for and against Nitirat

By Saksith Saiyasombut

The debates over the Nitirat group's proposals to amend the constitution and the lèse majesté law have become considerably heated and in parts downright ugly over the past weeks. Thammasat University became the venue and the center of controversy as most of the lectures of the group (consisting of 7 Thammasat law lectures) have taken place at that university and lately been banned by the administration, fearing that the university could be "mistaken to organize these events" or even seen to "agree with the movement".

The ban from the camps of "any activities related to the lese majeste law" has cast a large shadow over the university's stance on academic freedom. Ever since then, there are signs that its students and alumni are taking a stand for and against the ban and for and against the proposals of the Nitirat group themselves.

Tuesday was exemplary for this divide as two different groups were rallying on two different campuses of the university:

More than 200 current and former student members of the Journalism and Mass Communication Faculty staged a rally against Nitirat at the Tha Phrachan campus. Students and lecturers from other faculties and supporters joined in the demonstration.

They were countered by a group of students who gathered at Thammasat's Rangsit campus in Pathum Thani who oppose the ban on Nitirat. The group will hold a rally at Tha Phrachan campus on Sunday. (...) about 10 students came out to oppose the ban, saying it restricted freedom of speech.

"Nitirat ban splits student body", Bangkok Post, February 2, 2012

First off, let me express my astonishment that of all people, journalists and those striving to become one, should know better than anyone how important the subject of lèse majesté is and how threatening it is to their creed - the more mind-boggling and revealing it is to see these people rallying with posters (see above) like "Journalism [Faculty] against Nitirat", "Nitirat is not Thammasat, Thammasat is not Nitirat" and "Don't let knowledge distort morality!"

They called during a rally for members of the Thammsat community to oppose Nitirat's proposal for the amendment of Section 112 of the Criminal Code, for the university to launch a legal and disciplinary investigation of the seven law lecturers, for the mass media to exercise discretion in presenting information on the proposed amendment, and for people in all walks of life to oppose any move deemed insulting to the monarchy.

"Journalism students oppose Nitirat", Bangkok Post , February 2, 2012

Following the Thai Journalists Association welcoming (last sentence) last week's decision by Twitter to filter out tweets on a country-by-country basis (and Thailand rushing to endorse it), today's protest by journalism students against amendments to the ambiguous, but draconian lèse majesté law is a declaration of moral bankruptcy by Thailand's journalism.

For Thammasat University, considering its history and that it was once considered to be a beacon of liberal thinking, human rights and democratic freedom in Thailand, it is a dangerous walk on the tight rope. While its rector has given refuge to a young girl called "Kanthoop", who has been over the years witch-hunted by ultra-royalists and has to face a lèse majesté complaint, the university is risking to lose all its liberal credibility with the ban of the Nitirat group. In general this debate will test the ability of all Thais to listen and at least acknowledge opposing views and uncomfortable opinions - the outcome is yet to be expected.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and also on his public Facebook page here.

Video: 'Challenging the Sovereign Narrative' - (Social) Media in the Thai Political Crisis

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 23, 2011 (Note: This post was supposed to be up much, much earlier but was pushed back due to the floods and the re-relocation of the author back to Germany. Apologies to all involved for the momentous delay!)

Back in late September I was invited to hold a talk at Payap University in Chiang Mai and I chose to talk about a (social) media topic with the focus on the the 2010 anti-government Red Shirts' Protests, the knee-jerk demonizing of foreign media and what role social media played in this, if at all.

The talk is about 45 minutes long and includes 15 minutes of Q&A. The original full abstract can be found below the video.

Again, thanks to the people at Payap University for the invitation and organizing the event, especially Adam Dedman, Jessica Loh and Paul Chambers.

Challenging the Sovereign Narrative – Media Perceptions of the Thai Political Crisis and the (missing) Role of Social Media”

Speaker: Saksith Saiyasombut

When: Tuesday, 27 September 2011, 5-6pm

Place: Room 317, Pentecost Building, Mae Khao main campus, Payap University

The Kingdom of Thailand rarely pops up on the global news landscape and if so, then it is mostly for a so-called ‘soft’ story. In recent years though, political struggles, often escalating in violent protests on the streets of Bangkok, have dominated the airwaves of the international media outlets, only to disappear shortly after the protests have ended. With the Thai political crisis dragging on for several years now, reporters are struggling to properly report and explain the situation without simplifying this to just a color-coded conflict between two opposing groups. In particular, the anti-government Red Shirt protests of 2010 were a watershed moment for how Thailand and its political crisis are regarded, with many Thais objecting to the foreign media’s coverage, as much as to openly vilify the international TV news networks. On the other hand, the domestic media have failed in its role to objectively explain and provide context to the political developments of recent years.

The more important issue is the rise of social media to counter a sovereign narrative of the mainstream and state media – however, Thailand has yet to see a grassroots revolution fueled by the Internet. Nevertheless, online services like Twitter and Facebook provide Thais a way to read and express alternative viewpoints and also a platform to  fill the journalistic void left by other media outlets, but are threatened by the country’s ambiguously written Computer Crimes Act and lèse majesté law.

This talk looks at the perceptions of the international and domestic media of the Thai political crisis and why this struggle has not translated into an online uprising yet and aims to examine opportunities for “filling in the blanks” left by the mainstream media.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai political blogger and journalist. He wrote for his hometown newspapers Weser Kurier and Weser Report in Bremen, Germany, before working as an editorial assistant for Asia News Network and contributing reporter at The Nation. He started blogging about Thai politics on his personal website in early 2010 and since September 2010, Saksith now writes for Siam Voices, a collaborative blog on Thai current affairs on the regional blog and news network Asian Correspondent. He is also currently a graduate student of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Hamburg, Germany.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and also on his public Facebook page here.