Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
As a Thai political dissident who lives in exile, I’m accustomed to being attacked by the authoritarian leaders of my own country. Now I find myself adjusting to a new variation on the theme: confronting an allegedly democratic government that is willing to do Bangkok’s dirty work for it.
Earlier this month, I was invited to attend the Delhi Dialogue, a discussion forum on a variety of issues between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The organizers wanted me to discuss Thai-Indian relations and how they fit into the larger context of South and Southeast Asian politics. I had attended the event once before, many years ago.
My situation today, however, is rather different. In 2014, the Thai military seized power in a coup and immediately targeted me for my outspoken criticism of the monarchy. The coup organizers summoned me to have my attitude “adjusted” — their euphemism for interrogation. When I refused, the authorities issued a warrant for my arrest and revoked my passport. Luckily I was already living in Japan, so I decided to stay and apply for refugee status.
So when the Indians invited me to speak at the Delhi Dialogue again, I was convinced that they were aiming to highlight the importance of free speech, human rights and democracy. I was wrong.
I was supposed to speak at one of two events during the forum. Hours before the first one, the Thai Embassy in Delhi noticed my name on the schedule and expressed concerns to the Indian hosts. They were worried that I was going to speak critically of the junta. The Thai Foreign Ministry had assigned a deputy foreign minister, a junta appointee, to represent Thailand at the event. My attendance, it seems, would have “embarrassed” the Thai delegates.
Under pressure from the Thai Embassy, the organizers told me that my participation at the ministerial session was no longer welcome. In other words, having traveled to India, I was kicked out of the first day’s activities.
Stunned by the response from the Indian host, I decided to boycott the whole event and left Delhi abruptly (not least because I began to worry about my personal safety). I was used to being silenced by own government, but now I had been silenced by the same host that had invited me to the meeting in the first place.
To be honest, human rights, free speech and democracy have never held a prominent place in Thai-Indian relations. It is disappointing that India, which revels in its status as the world’s most populous democratic state, is now working closely with an illegitimate and un-elected government in Thailand.
Since the coup, India has said nothing about the military’s intervention in politics and the disruption of democracy. In fact, the Indian government has rolled out the red carpet to the coup-makers on several occasions. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the Thai prime minister, paid his first visit to India in June 2016. The press release from the Indian government said, “Thailand is a trusted and valued friend, and one of our closest partners in Southeast Asia.”
India has been happy to lend its diplomatic support to Thai military leaders and is willing to turn a blind eye to the lack of democracy in Thailand in its pursuit of economic gain. Although India is not currently a major strategic partner, the Bangkok junta’s growing recognition of India’s emergence as a new regional power has contributed to a rapid upgrade of the relationship.
India is keen to compensate for the regional rise of China, a desire that informs Delhi’s “Look East” strategy. India has a clear need to maintain close ties with Thailand. But this has never been done in a way that adequately respects India’s democratic principles. Thailand is under military rule, which has crushed the country’s democratic aspirations. The lack of India’s commitment to democratic principles in its foreign policy is making life easy for the junta’s despotic regime.
Unfortunately, this is part of a broader global trend. India is not the only democratic state that openly helps authoritarian regimes to suppress their critics. The South Korean government has placed me on a blacklist. And the U.S. government accepted a request from the Thai junta to annul my passport.
The Trump administration is showing itself much less willing to accept political refugees, vividly demonstrating Washington’s dwindling commitment to humanitarian principles. India and South Korea are treating critical academics as outlaws. These supposedly democratic nations are turning a blind eye to authoritarianism to safeguard their own positions of power.
I know that my peculiar experience in India appears trivial when viewed against the background of the relations of two large countries. Yet what happened to me still says a great deal about some democracies’ waning commitment to the principles they claim to hold dear.