A prominent critic of the Thai government in exile was attacked in his Kyoto home last month. The assault followed reports of other Thai dissidents who have disappeared or been killed in recent weeks. This incident and the others are part of a broader trend — attacks on journalists and other individuals who demand respect for democracy and an end to government abuse of human rights. Japan, the biggest source of foreign direct investment in Thailand, must speak out in defense of those rights and condemn all efforts to silence those voices.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai dissident and Japan Times contributor, forcefully denounced the military coups against democratically elected governments launched in 2006 and again in 2014. He is a former diplomat, who left Bangkok for Singapore and then moved to Japan in 2012, where he joined the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University. That move did not silence him and the junta that ruled Thailand after the 2014 coup identified him as an enemy of the country and issued a warrant for his arrest. Ever cheeky, Pavin refused to return for an interview but offered to send his dog instead.
His passport was revoked and he subsequently applied for refugee status in Japan. He remains popular in Thailand, however, with 180,000 followers on Facebook and his criticism of the Thai government, including the monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, appears regularly in media around the world.
That exposure has led to anonymous threats over the phone and reportedly his family in Bangkok has also been harassed. Last month, the campaign against him accelerated when a masked man broke into his home in the early hours of the morning and sprayed him and his partner with a chemical substance that caused a burning sensation on the skin.
This attack appears to be part of a sustained campaign against Thai dissidents. Dozens have been forced to flee the country since the 2014 coup that brought the current government to power. Those that remained have been intimidated, harassed and jailed. Those that fled have fared no better: Two critics of the regime were found dead in Laos, handcuffed, disemboweled and weighed down with concrete in the Mekong River. Another associate of those men has disappeared and remain missing, as have three other Thai exiles who broadcast anti-junta radio programs in Vietnam. They are thought to have been handed over to the Bangkok government by the Vietnamese authorities. Other dissidents are also missing.
The Thai government has denied allegations that it is involved in the disappearances. Human Rights Watch Asia has condemned the Thai government for its suppression of human rights, noting a string of attacks on prominent pro-democracy advocates and dissidents, the use of lawsuits to silence criticism, and the prosecution of those who dare to speak out.
The campaign against Thailand’s dissidents is no isolated case. The world has been horrified by the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, killed by a Saudi hit squad in that country’s consulate in Turkey. Maria Ressa, a Philippine journalist, has been harassed and threatened with imprisonment because of her ferocious pursuit of transparency and government accountability in her country.
Freedom House, an NGO that keeps an eye on human rights around the world, has charted the deterioration of media freedom around the world. Sadly, this is a global phenomenon, most acute in Europe but also evident in Asia. In its most recent report, it concluded that “Freedom of the media has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade. In some of the most influential democracies in the world, populist leaders have overseen concerted attempts to throttle the independence of the media sector.”
The Japanese government has been quiet as Thailand’s democracy has eroded. Instead, it has focused on the geopolitical competition between China and the West, apparently concerned that a vigorous defense of democracy and human rights would antagonize the junta and disadvantage Tokyo in its competition with Beijing.
When governments acquiesce to the erosion and disregard of their basic principles — what is more fundamental to democracy than the rights of citizens? — then they lose standing and respect. There is no clearer evidence of that disrespect than the disregard for Japanese sovereignty and authority by attacking an individual seeking the protection of the Japanese state — the purpose of refugee status. Japan must defend Pavin, find and prosecute his attacker and demand accountability from those behind the attack. The attack on him is an attack on all of us.