The Struggle for Freedom: The Thai academic exiled for criticizing the monarchy

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Ellen Bork
George W. Bush Institute
Self-exiled Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun addresses protesters through a live video call to condemn the military-aligned government of Thailands Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha during a pro-democracy rally at Thammasat University in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok, on August 10, 2020. (Photo by LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images)

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic, would be a political prisoner if he were to set foot in his homeland. In 2014, Thai authorities canceled his passport and issued an arrest warrant after he declined to return to Bangkok for “attitude adjustment.”   

From Japan, where he teaches at Kyoto University, Pavin makes trenchant criticism of Thailand’s lèse-majesté law, Article 112 of the criminal code, which outlaws defaming insulting or other offenses against the monarchy, a harsh yet elastic concept that enables King Maha Vajiralongkorn and the military to limit the democratic will of the Thai people.  

The use of lèse-majesté is at the heart of an ongoing political battle between Thais seeking reforms necessary for democracy and the royal-military oligarchy that limits it. The Move Forward Party, which won a surprise victory in national elections last year, partly on the strength of its call or reform of lèse-majesté, was prevented from forming a government. It now faces dissolution by Thailand’s constitutional court thanks to a request by the country’s electoral commission.  

The dilemma is that the very law that denies the will of Thailand’s people carries harsh consequences for those like Pavin who recognize the obstacle it poses to Thailand’s democracy.         

Silence and fear 

Pavin did not set out to become a critic of the monarchy. Born in 1971, he grew up under the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Vajiralongkorn’s father, whose reign spanned 70 years until his death in 2016. Pavin recalls being hushed by his mother when he asked questions about the monarchy and the royal family.  

“I was curious, as a boy back home,” he told me. “Why can’t we talk about the monarchy within our family? When I wanted to ask anything about it, my mom would say, `Shh, don’t talk about it.’”  

After studying in Bangkok and London, he joined Thailand’s foreign service and served for 16 years. While representing his country, he told me, “I was instructed to say things I disagreed with, but, as a diplomat, you have to do it.”  

That became especially difficult after the Thai military ousted the elected Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist IT and telecommunications magnate, in the 2006 coup. Pavin resigned from the foreign service at the end of a posting to Singapore in 2010, and then stayed on in the country, writing freely about Thailand’s politics at a think tank there.  

Pavin began his activism after an elderly Thai man, Ampon Tangnoppakul, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2011 for sending text messages deemed critical of the monarchy.  

“I was shocked,” Pavin said. “I thought the case was very inhuman – for him to be imprisoned for 20 years, as if he killed someone.”    

Emulating a campaign advocating for political prisoners in Burma at the time, Pavin wrote Ampon’s nickname – “Ah Kong,” which means “grandpa” – on his palm and posted a picture of it on Facebook. He called on others to overcome their fear and do the same. When many did, he recognized the depth of support among Thais for changes to the lèse-majesté law.    

Thailand’s next coup, in 2014, changed Pavin’s life. Now teaching in Japan, he received a summons to return to Bangkok for attitude adjustment, generally a brief period of extra-judicial detention without charge that includes various forms of interrogation. More serious critics of the monarchy were also charged with lèse-majesté offenses.       

Pavin tried to decline the summons he received, citing his teaching obligations.  

“I was a little bit naïve,” he said. “I thought my academic position would give me some protection. I was so wrong.”  

Facing continued pressure to return to Bangkok, he posted on Facebook that he would send his pet Chihuahua to answer the summons in his place. The authorities responded by issuing an arrest warrant and cancelling his passport.  

“They don’t like criticism, but they really don’t like being ridiculed,” he told me. 

Arguably, the royal family itself has provided fodder for ridicule, including where dogs are concerned. A leaked diplomatic cable by the American ambassador to Bangkok described an embassy party attended by then crown prince and his dog, Fufu, who had been given a high rank in the Royal Thai Air Force. Fufu was reportedly later given an elaborate, four day funeral. Under King Bhumibol, a man was arrested for posting sarcastic comments about the monarch’s dog online.  

Pavin laughed about suggesting his dog travel to Bangkok to answer the summons.  

“I didn’t really send the dog,” he chuckled. “I was just winding them up.”  

Humor aside, his work on lèse-majesté is deadly serious.  

Although he is no fan of the previous king, Bhumibol, Pavin nonetheless sees a discernable shift toward royal absolutism under Vajiralongkorn.  

In Rama X: The Thai Monarchy Under King Vajiralongkorn, a collection of essays he edited, Pavin describes the king’s unconstitutional intervention  to augment royal powers and the cultivation of fear. Among other things, Pavin notes the humiliation and punishments meted out to those who have fallen from favor and the disappearances of Thai dissidents from neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Rights groups have reported on Bangkok’s suspected cooperation with other countries is transnational repression 

Pavin himself was assaulted in his Kyoto apartment in 2019 when a man broke in and sprayed him and his partner with a chemical.   

Other essays in the collection depict a king seeking greater wealth and power, transferring the Crown Property Bureau which holds billions of dollars in assets and two army regiments to his direct control as well as the mysterious destruction of monuments, buildings, and plaques commemorating the 1932 revolution that ended Thailand’s absolute monarchy. These had been touchstones for more recent democracy movements.  

Increasingly concerned about the trend toward royal absolutism, younger Thais took to the streets to protest in 2020, spurred in part by the dissolution of Move Forward’s predecessor party. Protesters put forward 10 demands for reforms including the freedom to criticize the monarch, revocation of Article 112, and pardons for those prosecuted under it. 

Pavin sees this challenge from Thai youth, who grew up in the twilight of Bhumibol’s reign, inspired by “a radically different understanding of power, deference, and legitimacy.” Their movement, Pavin wrote, amounts to a “decisive break with the old social consensus that existed during the long reign of the late King Bhumibol. Neither the old regime under Bhumibol, nor the new one, which is even more absolute, is suitable for modern day politics in Thailand.”        

Not surprisingly, the Thai government banned the book. 

Decisive break or regression  

Change is not close at hand. Although the government paused lèse-majesté prosecutions in 2017, they resumed during the 2020 protests. Two hundred sixty-two Thais were prosecuted under Article 112 from 2020 to 2023, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR). Overall, 2,000 have been prosecuted for the exercise of free speech or association during that period.  

Among them is Arnon Nampa, a founding member of TLHR, and Pavin’s former counsel. Arnon was arrested simply for calling for a national discussion of the law against lèse-majesté. Already serving four years, he faces a dozen more charges that may keep him in prison for life.   

Another young Thai, Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom, died in detention on May 14, during a hunger strike while facing lèse-majesté charges. 

These prosecutions, and a ban on Move Forward and its leaders, if imposed, would at a minimum postpone the urgently needed discussion about lèse-majesté. At worst, they will lead to the disenfranchisement of millions of Thai voters.  

From exile, Pavin has laid out a powerful case against Article 112. Last year, he brought a traveling exhibition of photographs and stories about the victims of lèse-majesté repression to the U.S.  

It’s time for the discussion Pavin has stimulated abroad to be tolerated inside Thailand. That requires the release of political prisoners, including Arnon, and the ability of exiled critics, like Pavin, to take part in it with their fellow Thais without fear.