Arrests, killings strike fear in Thailand’s dissidents: ‘The hunting has been accelerated’
Early in December, Surachai Danwattananusorn went uncharacteristically silent.
The septuagenarian Thai dissident stopped recording the fortnightly podcast he had hosted for years from exile in Laos. Text messages from his wife in Thailand went unanswered.
Two weeks later, the bodies of two of his colleagues were found floating in the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos. They had been handcuffed and strangled with a rope, their stomachs disemboweled and stuffed with concrete.
Surachai remains missing and is feared dead — the most prominent of a wave of exiles who have been arrested, abducted, disappeared or killed in recent months in a shadowy crackdown against critics of the twin pillars of Thailand’s establishment: the monarchy and military.
Exiles say the Thai army is trying to silence opponents, at home and abroad, in the twilight of military rule that began with a 2014 coup. A new Parliament, elected in March under rules that heavily favored army-backed candidates, was sworn in Friday.
The crackdown also signals the army’s effort to clear the way for the coronation this month of Thailand’s new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn. Hundreds have been arrested for making or sharing statements or online posts deemed offensive to the monarchy, which is protected from almost all criticism by some of the world’s most sweeping lese-majeste laws.
The arrests and disappearances have sent shock waves through the scattered community of roughly 100 Thai dissidents in exile — most living in the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia.
Soon after appointing himself prime minister, the junta leader, former Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, said his top priority was protecting the monarchy and called on foreign governments to hand over exiled activists. Prayuth, who refashioned himself into a civilian politician and led the party that won the most votes in the March election, is favored to stay on as prime minister in the new government.
“It has been easy so far, while Thailand is under the junta, to eliminate enemies of the state this way,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political scientist who obtained refugee status in Japan after the military issued a warrant for his arrest in 2014 over comments critical of the coup.
“Once Thailand is under a ‘civilian regime,’ ” he said, “this method of eliminating enemies will be illegitimate, and surely illegal. Hence, time is ticking. The hunting has been accelerated.”
In March, a United Nations working group on enforced disappearances wrote to the Thai government asking for information about Surachai and his colleagues, saying “it is believed Thai officials may be responsible” for their fates. Thailand’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment from The Times.
Then, in early May, human rights groups said that three other Thai dissidents who fled Laos after Surachai’s abduction had been arrested in Vietnam, which reportedly extradited them to Thailand.
Thai authorities have not acknowledged holding the men, whom rights groups identified as Chucheep Chivasut, Siam Theerawut and Kritsana Thapthai — accused of operating anti-monarchy radio programs and mobilizing demonstrations.
Days later, Malaysia sent an activist who had applied for U.N. refugee status back to Thailand in apparent violation of international laws prohibiting the deportation of asylum seekers who face persecution in their home countries.
The asylum seeker, Praphan Pipithnamporn, had previously been arrested in Thailand for her affiliation with the Organization for Thai Federation, a banned anti-monarchy group whose supporters wear black shirts with a red-and-white flag logo. Human rights groups said Praphan was being held at a prison in Bangkok.
Two other dissidents disappeared in Laos in 2016 and 2017 and are believed dead.
“The threats are not new, but it has gotten more intense at the beginning of the reign of the current king, because they want to eliminate anyone who criticizes the monarchy,” said Worravut “Tito” Thueakchaiyaphum of the protest band Faiyen, whose members fled to Laos in 2014 to escape trial by a military court.
The band, whose name means “cool fire,” announced on social media last week that its members feared for their lives after “many trusted people told us that the Thai military will come to kill us.”
In a phone interview from Laos, Worravut said the group had seen a document that Thai authorities sent to the government of Laos, listing the names of Thai exiles who were being sought for arrest. The Times could not independently confirm the existence of such a document.
Worravut, 30, said he approached the U.S. Embassy in Laos in 2014 to request refugee status, but was told he had to apply in Thailand. In recent months, he said, representatives of the Thai security forces have visited his parents’ house in northeastern Thailand with increasing frequency, attempting to apply pressure so that he’d turn himself in.
The band — which plays luk thung, a style of Thai country music popular with the working class — rose to prominence in 2010 for criticizing a deadly army crackdown against opposition “red shirt” demonstrators allied with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Faiyen performed at protest rallies, its lyrics directly calling for the repeal of the lese-majeste law. One song highlights how several activists arrested under the law were repeatedly denied bail. It includes the verse:
Just a bit of curiosity lands you in jail! Jail! Jail! Jail!
Just a bit of criticism lands you in jail! Jail! Jail! Jail!
Just telling the truth lands you in jail! Jail! Jail! Jail!
Worravut said band members were now sleeping in shifts, listening for unfamiliar vehicles and venturing out of their house only for food — and never alone.
“If a dog barks, if we hear a car, we have to go out and check,” band member Trairong Sinseubpol said in a recent video message. “Because it’s no longer just a threat…. Many warnings point to the same thing, that they are coming for sure.”
Faiyen’s situation is especially precarious because the Laotian government has never acknowledged the presence of Thai refugees on its soil. The exiles hold no residency papers, driver’s licenses or other official documents, meaning they lack protection under local laws and Laos could feign ignorance if they go missing.
“Whether we will be captured for illegal entry into the country this very day, I don’t know,” Trairong said.
The band lives mainly off donations from supporters, and for a while continued to have a presence in Thailand through a YouTube channel where it posted songs and messages — until the Thai government blocked the channel.
Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Faiyen’s members were among the last anti-monarchy activists still being sought.
“The others that Thailand wanted have ended up disappeared or dead. The only one remaining and still active online is Faiyen,” he said. “So they have reason to be worried about their safety.”
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