Thai academic-in-exile Pavin Chachavalpongpun in a media interview in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

On July 8, Thai academic-in-exile Pavin Chachavalpongpun woke to a masked man spraying him and his sleeping partner with a chemical substance in their home in Kyoto, Japan.

Pavin, 48, says he awoke in his darkened bedroom at 4:45 am, when he felt someone pulling back his bed covers. When his partner yelled, the black-clad assailant fled the scene.

Investigating police later found a hammer that was used to break into their residence, indicating a crude break-in. Pavin and his partner were later treated at a hospital for chemical burns that remained irritated for several days, the academic told Asia Times.

“There’s an ongoing trend of domestic attacks on activists right now, so I believe this [attack] is part of this trend,” said Pavin, whose family has faced harassment in Thailand. “But the difference is this time it happened in Japan,” he added.

The incident, by now widely reported in media, has both puzzled and alarmed observers of the rising plight of Thailand’s expanding population of political exiles.

The attack on Pavin, renowned for his sometimes critical writings on the Thai monarchy, including articles published in Japanese media, comes amid rising unexplained attacks against exiled anti-monarchy critics.

Thai academic-in-exile Pavin Chachavalpongpun demonstrates during then Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s 2015 visit to the United States. Photo: Facebook

In recent months, vocal critics of the previous junta-led government and monarchy have been arrested, assaulted, disappeared and murdered, according to monitoring rights groups and media reports.

Since the May 2014 democracy-suspending coup, at least eight Thai dissidents have gone missing in the region, according to human rights groups monitoring the situation.

The apparent campaign to silence and purge exiled anti-monarchy activists started when Itthipol Sukpan and Wuthipong Kachathamakul, both online political radio hosts critical of the previous military government and Thai royal family, disappeared in neighboring Laos in 2016.

Then, in December last year, three more prominent exiled Thai critics went missing in Laos, where rights groups estimate some 50 Thai dissidents are still in hiding.

Soon thereafter, two bodies were found washed up on a riparian beach on the Thai side of the Mekong River near the Thai-Lao border.

Police determined that the two found bodies were Chatcharn “Puchana” Buppawan, 56, and Kraidej “Kasalong” Luelert, 46, two of the three dissidents who were reported as disappeared. The third missing man, Surachai Danwattananusorn, 76, one of Thailand’s most known royal critics, is still unaccounted for.

Since May this year, three additional military government and monarchy critics, namely Siam Theerawut, Chucheep Chivasut and Kritsana Thapthai, are also believed by rights groups to have disappeared.

Disappeared Red Shirt activist Wuthipong Kachathamakul during a street demonstration in Bangkok in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Pavin, a former Thai Foreign Ministry official, is perhaps the most prominent Thai critic of the royal institution. It’s a perilous perch, even while living in exile in a democratic country.

Lese majeste laws that shield Thailand’s royal family, including newly crowned King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X, from insult or threat are among the most severe in the world, allowing for 15-year prison sentences for violations.

Cases that make it to court face near 100% conviction rates, causing many of those accused under the law to flee rather than face the judicial process. Those who are convicted are known to face harassment in prison.

Pavin is among those who decided to flee rather than face possible politicized court proceedings. It’s not immediately clear that the July 8 attack against Pavin was politically motivated or in any way state-sponsored.

If it was state-sponsored, however, it would send an ominous message to other influential Thai dissidents that they are not safe anywhere in Asia, even in countries like Japan, widely known for their safety and low crime rates.

Pavin feels certain that the chemical attack was political, telling Asia times that he believes the black clad intruder was sent by the “palace” to scare him into silence.

“This is an order from the palace. I’m very confident about this,” says the associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

Police stand guard at the entrance of the Emerald Buddha temple in the compound of the Grand Palace in Bangkok on May 3, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Jewel Samad

Pavin has been living in self-imposed exile in Japan since the 2014 coup.

He has long expressed critical views about both the government and monarchy, writings that subsequently resulted in significant push-back from the military junta.

Shortly after the coup, he was summoned by the military for an “attitude adjustment” session he declined to attend. After leaving the country, his passport was revoked and he has not returned since.

Japanese police are now reportedly investigating the attack. Pavin claims that Japan’s international terrorism unit is also looking into the incident. (The agency has denied that it is involved in investigating the incident, according to a Financial Times report.)

“They sent their international terrorism unit to talk to us that [July 8] morning, so they must have known the level of impact,” he said. Any evidence that the attack was linked to Thai state actors would inevitably complicate relations with Thailand’s largest foreign investor.

Pavin said he waited a couple of weeks before going to the press because police had instructed him not to use social media and to avoid speaking to journalists, as such publicity could compromise the initial stages of their investigation.

The Thai government, as with previous reported incidents against anti-monarchy exiles, has denied any knowledge or responsibility for the attack. On August 5, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha denied Pavin’s allegations to a group of reporters.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha during the coronation procession of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok on May 5, 2019. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

“I sympathize with him, but he was assaulted in Japan,” Prayut said. “If you are accusing the government of sending someone to do it, who would dare do that? The government didn’t do it, and we would never do so.”

General Apirat Kongsompong, Thailand’s army chief who also serves as the head of the King’s Royal Guard Force, also denied Pavin’s claims. “I’d say don’t be too imaginative. This is not a ‘Mission Impossible’ movie,” he said.

Thais who have publicly criticized the monarchy, ranging from artists to academics to journalists to opposition politicians, often find themselves in impossible situations, particularly when cases are filed for political purposes – as both sides of the nation’s entrenched political conflict have done over the years.

Pavin, for his part, has continued to criticize government leaders and royal figures from exile. He currently has over 180,000 followers on social media, amplifying his views and making him a potential high-value target for royalist retribution.

Pavin told Asia Times that the week before the attack he received a series of suspicious calls where the Japanese-speaking caller refused to identify himself.

Pavin says he initially brushed off the calls as petty harassment, but became worried when one anonymous caller cryptically said that he was from Germany, a not-so-veiled reference to where King Maha Vajiralongkorn often resides.

Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Photo: Reuters / Athit Perawongmetha
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn lights a candle in a November 29, 2016 photo. Photo: Twitter

The recently crowned monarch is tipped to visit Japan as his first official visit abroad. The two nations’ royal families maintained exceptionally cordial relations during the recently deceased King Bhumibol Adulaydej’s long reign.

“There were some signs leading up to the attack,” Pavin told Asia Times. “The week before the incident, I started to receive strange calls to my office, then to my personal phone…This is the first time in seven years I’ve ever experienced anything like this,” he said.

Approximately 24 hours before the 4:45am attack, at 3:30 am on July 7, Pavin received another phone call from an unknown caller to his mobile phone he opted not to answer.

Attacks on journalists are often preceded by anonymous threats, Committee to Protect Journalists research shows. International rights groups are now conducting their own investigations into the chemical attack.

Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch, told Asia Times that the attacks send “a spine-chilling message to critics of the monarchy that nowhere is safe for them, no matter how far they have escaped.”

Thai soldiers take away an alleged Red-Shirt protester ahead of a planned gathering in Bangkok in a May 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP/ Manan Vatsyayana
Thai soldiers take away an alleged Red Shirt protester ahead of a planned gathering in Bangkok in a May 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP/ Manan Vatsyayana

Sunai added: “Violence seems to have stretched beyond Thailand into neighboring countries and now reached Japan, which is considered to be one of the safest places in the world.”

Critical academics focused on the region are also watching the events closely. Although there is no firm evidence to confirm that the perpetrator was dispatched by powerful figures in Thailand, the timing and tactic are significant.

Tyrell Haberkorn, associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, told Asia Times that the attack is worrying in the current context where the military still holds sway over politics.

“What is concerning about the attack on Pavin Chachavalpongpun, in combination with the unresolved disappearances and murders of Thai exiles in neighboring countries, is that it indicates the willingness and the ability of the perpetrators to go beyond the borders of Thailand. This raises significant questions about the identities of the perpetrators,” said Haberkorn, an expert on state impunity and authoritarianism in the region.

Thai Marines move equipment from a sea vessel as units change shifts to patrol the coast in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat, near the Malaysian border, early on September 29, 2017.The rangers change shifts for routine patrols along the coast as part of the military's counter-insurgency operation in the "Deep South" border provinces. / AFP PHOTO / Madaree TOHLALA
Thai Marines silhouetted near the Malaysian border, September 29, 2017. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

“Are they Thai state officials operating outside the country, organized crime working in connection with Thai state officials, or someone else altogether?” she asked.

“Taken together with the recent assaults and threats against critics inside the country, in which the Thai police have faced difficulty in identifying, let alone apprehending the perpetrators, this means that to be a serious critic of the military regime has become a very dangerous business.”

Despite the assault, Pavin says he will not be silenced. The academic says it’s important that the recent rash of attacks on exiles are well-documented so that the international community has evidence to apply pressure on Thailand.

“I have to say it was scary to wake up in the middle of the night to find someone in my bedroom,” Pavin told Asia Times. “But I have come this far, so I can’t let this kind of thing shut me up.”

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