Kyoto – In the world of academia, Pavin Chachavalpongpun is known as an associate professor at one of Japan’s most prestigious universities, a sought-after expert on Southeast Asian politics and a regular commentator for some of the West’s largest newspapers.
But in his native Thai, Pavin might write a lengthy Facebook post about the monarchy one minute, and in the next follow up with a TikTok video in which he lip-syncs in a theatrical manner to a traditional, not-to-be-mocked song praising the king, all while employing an array of the app’s comical filters.
What Pavin calls his “split personality” — part academic, part brash, unfiltered social media entertainer — has made him an internet celebrity in Thailand and helped foster serious, and not-so-serious, discussions about the monarchy in a country where a strict lese majeste law punishes criticism of the royals with up to 15 years in prison.
It has also put him at odds with the Thai government, leading to the revocation of his passport in 2014 after he ignored an order to appear at a military camp for an “attitude adjustment.” Pavin, who offered to send his dog in his place, became a political exile and applied for refugee status with the Japanese government in 2015.
Now, as thousands of Thai students defy government attempts to halt pro-democracy rallies, call for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and break taboos by criticizing and seeking a reform of the monarchy, many are advertising the Facebook group of 2.1 million users that he created, while some are carrying posters with images of Pavin and even prostrating toward pictures of him.
Pavin, who supports the ongoing protests but has no formal connection to their student leaders, has mixed feelings about his ever-growing profile.
“It goes both ways,” Pavin said in a recent interview. “One is, you can’t help but feel good because people start looking at you as a kind of icon. They look up to you.”
On the other hand, he continued, the prostration — an act of subservience typically done in front of Thai royalty — is too much for him.
While noting that the protesters were merely doing so in jest, that kind of reverence for the monarchy is a big part of what Pavin wants to see eliminated.
But, in a way, they are taking a page right out of his own playbook.
“If you want to strip anything sacred, the best thing is to make fun of it,” he said.
Given Pavin’s growing impact on young protesters in Thailand, it seemed inevitable that the Thai government would act to further limit his influence and reach.
The hammer drops
The news Pavin had been dreading came on an afternoon in late August via a phone call from a pair of acquaintances working for Facebook: Under pressure from the Thai government, the social media giant was blocking access in Thailand to his massive group, called the Royalist Marketplace.
The group had, like many of Pavin’s articles and commentaries on Thailand, been a thorn in the side of the Thai government for its daily avalanche of posts criticizing and mocking the country’s monarchy and King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is not nearly as popular with Thais as his father was.
It was also the place where Pavin’s other personality had really shone, with his satire and lip-synching videos (reposted from TikTok) garnering thousands of likes and comments.
In a country like Thailand, where public discussion of the monarchy had been practically nonexistent, the group was a vital outlet for pro-democracy thinkers, many of them young people.
Wankwan Polachan, an assistant professor and program director of the media and communication program at Mahidol University near Bangkok, believes that Pavin’s group showed other would-be dissenters that they aren’t alone.
“When you talk about movement with social media, especially with these students that do the protests now … I think that whatever they’re doing, they would look for something that explains their logic or supports their righteousness of action,” Wankwan said. “I think it provides comfort to the students. ‘OK, even a professor is doing this.’”
The group also served as a way for people to gain a fresh, outside perspective that would be much harder to find through more traditional means such as newspapers or television.
“Most of the information that he talks about … no one’s going to talk about it in Thailand,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor of Thai politics, also at Mahidol University. “Not many people … are brave enough to write something on that page, but a lot of people are trying to see information and the problems with Thai politics from that page.”
Nutthapong, a blogger and politically minded Thai resident of Tokyo, calls himself an “early adopter” of holding an ambivalent view on the Thai royal family and much of what is posted on the group is not necessarily news to him.
But he said the Royalist Marketplace became an important gathering place for people who have long been unable to find unfiltered information, and gossip, on Thai royals. And it’s Pavin’s style that is clearly at the heart of the group’s popularity.
“The tactic that he uses is more like trolling. ‘You say this and I don’t care, I just make fun of you,’” said Nutthapong, who attended a rally outside Shibuya Station in late September and another on Oct. 25 in support of Thailand’s pro-democracy movement. He spoke on condition that his full name be withheld out of fear of reprisal. “It’s something that is easy to consume and people enjoy that.”
Such tactics are perhaps best exemplified through Pavin’s TikTok videos. There, he makes full use of the app’s many filters to give himself pigtails and colorful hair or to appear as royalty, among other digital costumes — all the while imitating traditional songs or lip-synching to taped recordings of speeches by Thai royalty.
“You have to be over the top,” he said.
But such memes and satire are not for everyone. Pavin himself acknowledged that many people who share his political beliefs disagree with the way he goes about his activism, with pro-democracy critics saying that he should choose whether he wants to be an academic or an activist.
“Why can’t I be both? Being an academic, I think a part of it is basically to push an agenda for a better society … to bring out new issues,” he said.
For Nutthapong, the group isn’t his “cup of tea” and he thinks that sometimes Pavin is a bit “too larger than life.” But he says there is no denying that many people have found their voice through his work.
“He’s one of us that we can look up to. I think many people think that way,” Nutthapong said. “He’s the one who got people to start … questioning many things.”
Social media has taken on an increasingly important role in the ongoing student-led protests that began in Bangkok but have since spread across the country and among the Thai diaspora.
Students flouted a recent ban on rallies through highly coordinated online efforts to stage last-minute rallies to avoid the detection of the police.
Any efforts by Thai authorities to severely limit activity and criticism online are unlikely to succeed, according to both Punchada and Wankwan.
“When they try to do this censorship or track anyone down they’re always one step slower,” Wankwan said.
The road that led Pavin to become one of the kingdom’s most prominent dissidents began with a middle-class upbringing in Bangkok. Like most families in that income bracket, Pavin’s was a royalist household, with several pictures of the king and royal family members hanging in his childhood home.
Pavin recalls his curiosity about the monarchy from a young age and being confused as to why he was always told to be quiet when trying to discuss it at the dinner table.
“As a young boy I interpreted it in two ways. First it asks the question in my head, ‘Why do you have to shush? Why?’” Pavin said. “The second thing is … is it wrong for us to talk about it, apart from forbidding us to talk about it?”
After graduating from university in the mid-1990s, Pavin found work with the Thai Foreign Ministry, which led him on to postgraduate studies abroad, first at Saitama University and then at the University of London. Pavin says his time overseas opened his eyes to issues related to the government and the monarchy in his home country, particularly upon his return to Thailand in 2002.
That part of Pavin’s story is not unique.
Such periods of enlightenment are common among Thais who study and travel abroad, according to Wankwan, Mahidol University’s media program director. Wankwan also studied at the University of London, although her time there didn’t overlap with Pavin’s.
“I think (enlightenment) is very common because when you are in Thailand you see the world in one color,” Wankwan said. “But once you (go) over there you see another world and you start comparing.”
Nutthapong grew up in northeastern Thailand, one of the country’s poorest regions, before moving to Japan for a few years in the early 2000s.
On his return to Thailand in 2006, shortly before a military-led coup overthrew the government of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, he said he felt a sense of reverse culture shock.
Such sentiments are only growing as more Thais spend time overseas, he said.
“The kids from this generation, they have more chances to go abroad. They have more chances to see something better, they have a chance to learn from other countries, so I think they’ve had enough of the old way,” said Nutthapong, who moved back to Japan nearly two years ago to start a family with his Japanese wife.
These days, activists don’t even need to take expensive trips abroad to experience their own enlightenment — social media is more than enough.
For Pavin, his enlightenment put him on a collision course with his career track as a diplomat.
At the tail end of his posting to the Thai Embassy in Singapore from 2003 to 2007, Pavin was told to explain why the coup that ousted the elected Thaksin was necessary, pushing him past his breaking point.
“Every day you go to the embassy (and) your job is to defend the government. But on the other part of your thinking you are enlightened, so you know what the government is doing is so bad,” he said.
He eventually left the Foreign Ministry, taking a job in Singapore as a fellow at what was then called the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies. But even that proved to be incompatible with his growing attacks online and in print media against the Thai government, and Pavin says he was frequently scolded for causing trouble.
He left the institute for a job at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies in March 2012.
That has been a much better fit for the outspoken 49-year-old, and Pavin says he is grateful for the academic freedom he has enjoyed while teaching at one of Japan’s top schools.
“In terms of the limit in your work and your research and also the limit of what you can say and what you cannot, here, not even once, has someone come to me and said, ‘Pavin, please tone it down.’ Not ever,” he said.
The months following a June 2019 attack in his Kyoto home is perhaps the only time that Pavin has been shaken from his criticism of the Thai government and monarchy. In the incident, an attacker entered the house where he lives with his partner in the early hours of the morning and sprayed a chemical that burned Pavin’s skin, before fleeing.
Police have been investigating the case but no arrests have been made, Pavin said.
More than a year later, he remains convinced that this was an effort by the Thai government to intimidate him, based on the nature of the attack (the use of nondeadly force) and other suspicious incidents involving Thai exiles, but that it wasn’t an attempt on his life.
Thailand’s army chief, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, denied the government had anything to do with the assault in a report by Reuters in July of that year.
“We have our hands full in addressing problems internally in Thailand. And to think that we dispatch people to go assault people overseas — that is impossible,” Apirat said, according to the report.
The Thai Embassy in Tokyo did not answer questions from The Japan Times seeking comment.
Human Rights Watch’s 2020 report on Thailand noted that numerous Thai dissidents exiled in Southeast Asian countries have disappeared in recent years, including prominent anti-royalist Surachai Danwattananusorn, who had a sizable following on YouTube. The military denied culpability in that case.
Pavin initially kept a low profile following the attack, but decided that he couldn’t stay off social media forever.
“At the end of the day, because this is a part of who I am,” he said, “I should not let this stop what I really think about Thai politics and democratization in Thailand.”
A dream for Thailand
Pavin gets emotional when he is asked about the ongoing protest movement in his home country. He said it is giving him hope for the future of Thailand, where the military and the monarchy have long exerted their influence on politics, with the royal family reportedly signing off on multiple military coups, including the 2014 coup that brought Prayut to power, over the past several decades.
“The issue that they are addressing today, looking back if I were at that age, I might not have the same courage,” he said.
The protesters, many of them high school and university students, continued to gather despite government attempts to ban gatherings larger than four people in Bangkok and numerous arrests.
They aren’t, however, calling for the abolition of the monarchy but merely a reform that would strip it of political power.
And despite all his criticisms of the monarchy, that is in line with what Pavin hopes to see for Thailand as well, pointing to the success of the constitutional monarchies of Japan and the United Kingdom — two of his adopted homes over the years — as a guide for his home country.
According to a Reuters report following the blocking of Royalist Marketplace, Facebook was considering legal recourse against the Thai government.
“Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to Reuters. “We work to protect and defend the rights of all internet users and are preparing to legally challenge this request.”
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment from The Japan Times.
After getting over his initial anger, Pavin was determined to see his group live on.
The phone call he received, warning him of the blockage, gave him enough time to act before it was too late.
“I had about three or four hours to inform the members to pack their bags and move to a new house,” Pavin said.
Within 24 hours, Pavin’s successor Facebook group with a similar name had 500,000 members. By the end of October, it had grown to 2.1 million.
Pavin says he isn’t worried about further moves to shut it down, saying he’ll just continue opening new ones.
“It might sound a bit cliche, but (Royalist Marketplace) is not a place. It’s now a spirit,” Pavin said. “If it remained a place it might be a bit difficult every time you move. … But it’s become a spirit, it’s easier.
“People will come anyway.”
— Pavin (@PavinKyoto) October 26, 2020
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