On March 14, a group of Thais staged a peaceful protest outside the hotel where Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha was staying. Prayuth paid a visit to Japan on March 13-14 to attend the Third U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in the city of Sendai.
The Thai protesters, some masking themselves, held banners with damning statements: “No Appointed Prime Minister,” “No Politicized Institutions,” “No Fake Elections,” and “Reject Future Authoritarian Rule.”
Some of these statements were written in both Thai and Japanese. The banners were accompanied by horrific images of the Thai military brutally cracking down on red-shirt protesters on the streets of Bangkok in May 2010. In that event, 99 were killed and more than 2,000 injured.
This was not the first time that Thais in Japan demonstrated against the leader of the Thai military government. When Prayuth visited Tokyo at the invitation of the Japanese government on Feb. 8-10, a similar group of Thais gathered to express their rejection of Prayuth’s authoritarian regime. They shouted, “No to Martial Law in Thailand” and “We Just Want Democracy.”
They also highlighted the fact that a Japanese cameraman working for Reuters, Hiroyuki Muramoto, was the first reporter killed during the 2010 protests in Bangkok. Until today, the case has not been solved and the Thai military has continued to deny responsibility for the death of Muramoto. Prayuth was serving as deputy army chief when deadly crackdowns were launched against protesters and journalists.
Since Prayuth and his cohorts staged a coup on May 22 last year, an army of Western governments have echoed their concerns about the shrinking democratic space in Thailand. As a result, some, including the United States, the European Union and Australia, have imposed “soft sanctions” against the Thai junta. Other punitive measures include a travel ban against top leaders of the Thai military government.
A sense of anger and resentment has also been felt among some pro-democratic Thais who live outside Thailand. In Japan, it is difficult to estimate the total number of anti-junta individuals. But what can be said is that some have gradually become politically active — even more active than Thais residing in Western countries.
In my interviews with some of them, who wanted to remain anonymous, it is revealed that they are deeply convinced that the Prayuth military government has further obstructed Thai democratization rather than strengthened it as often claimed. It is also interesting to learn that although they might have been living in Japan for decades, they remain very passionate about the deteriorating political situation at home.
Some informed me that the real turning point for them came in the aftermath of the military’s suppression of the red shirts in 2010. The rise of political violence and the military’s relentless interference in politics have compelled Thais in Japan to become politically enthusiastic. This has proven to be a common motive among anti-junta Thais in other parts of the world.
In Japan’s context, these anti-coup individuals are mostly Thai housewives (with a Japanese husband) and small-scale entrepreneurs. Some are owners of Thai restaurants in Japan. Thus there is often a limit to how well they can communicate their political viewpoints to the Japanese government.
Undeniably some of the anti-coup Thais residing in Japan are loyal supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was toppled by the military in 2006 following several electoral victories that were eventually perceived as a threat to the power of the old establishment.
After the 2014 coup that overthrew Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, anti-coup groups worldwide set about working together to denounce the legitimacy of the current military government.
Nongnuch, a Thai housewife who has lived in Japan for more than 20 years, told me that she came from Thailand’s poorest northeast region. After Thaksin’s advent into politics in 2001, the economic livelihood of her family in Thailand drastically improved. As a result of his populist programs, Thaksin was able to lift the living standard of many people in the remote regions.
More importantly, Thaksin empowered them politically. He gave them a sense of political belonging. For once, they had a direct say in their destiny by electing their favorite politicians.
Thaksin was able to open up political space that had long been dominated by the old establishment to more competition. In doing so, he provoked the rural constituencies into challenging the old style of politics.
Vichai, an owner of a Thai restaurant in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, admitted that Thaksin might not have been the most honest prime minister Thailand has ever seen but that at least he got things done. And what Thaksin did greatly benefited the people at the lower end of society.
Both Nongnuch and Vichai agree that the primary mission of the military government is to uproot Thaksin’s political influence. Although these two are unable to voice their concerns in eloquent political language, they said they believe that the constitutional drafting committees are trying to weaken future civilian governments as a way of preventing successful political parties, like that of Thaksin, from returning to power.
Members of the anti-coup group in Japan have already submitted letters to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, seeking the Japanese government’s help in putting pressure on the Thai military regime. Their demands are clear: They want power returned to Thai voters and martial law to be abolished.
But with Prayuth visiting Japan twice in less than two months, anti-coup Thais are wondering if anyone in Japan has heard their pleas.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
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