I’m proud to have journalist friends from all over the world, thanks in part to the 20 years I spent as a foreign correspondent. But I’ve never seen them experience times like these. A few years ago in Manila, I got to know Maria Ressa, a leading Philippines journalist and editor who has since faced extended government harassment, including prison time — even though her country is supposed to be a democracy. Colleagues in Myanmar, who not that long ago were rejoicing over their newfound freedom to write and say what they wanted, find themselves confronting a revival of censorship and intimidation. And I can’t begin to count all my Turkish reporter friends who are dodging prison or living in exile thanks to a brutal government crackdown on their profession that has made their country one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists.
Even though we’re based in the United States, The Post clearly isn’t immune to this trend. Our contributing columnist Vladimir Kara-Murza continues to write unvarnished criticism of the Kremlin despite surviving two poisonings by unknown assailants who were clearly trying to bully him into silence — or worse. And I probably don’t have to tell you what happened to Jamal Khashoggi.
Now, it turns out, we must add yet another Post contributor to the dismal roster of those targeted by a vicious regime: Pavin Chachavalpongpun.
Pavin is a leading Thai scholar and writer who has spent the past five years in exile in Japan as a result of official displeasure with his criticism of the military junta and the monarchy that rule back home. On July 8, he and his partner were suddenly jolted from sleep in the bedroom of their house in Kyoto. A masked man dressed in black entered the room and sprayed a chemical substance at the two men in the bed, who immediately felt a burning sensation on their skin. Though Pavin’s partner (who has asked that we not publish his name) tried to give chase, the assailant managed to get away. The police arrived quickly, and Pavin and his partner were taken to the emergency room in a nearby hospital. The doctors were able to treat them but have so far been unable to identify what was in the spray. The Japanese police are investigating.
Some will no doubt be inclined to dismiss this incident as a relatively harmless prank. That would be a huge mistake. Over the past five years, since the military seized power in a coup, Thai dissidents have faced a systematic campaign of violence and intimidation — especially those living outside of the country.
The first two dissidents disappeared from Laos. Itthipol Sukpan, also known as DJ Zunho, went missing in June 2016. Wuthipong Kachathamakul, alias Ko Tee, also vanished without a trace in July 2017. Both men were ferocious critics of the Thai monarchy, a much-revered institution protected by the draconian lèse-majesté law. Neither has been seen since.
In December 2018, news of the disappearance of three more dissidents in Laos spread on Thai social media. Surachai Danwattananusorn, a prominent ex-communist and anti-monarchist, went missing along with two of his assistants, Kraidej Luelert and Chatcharn Buppawan. Surachai was a veteran activist of the Red Shirt movement, which supported former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whom the generals and the monarchists view with loathing. In 2011, Surachai was imprisoned for lèse-majesté but received a royal pardon two years later before running away after the coup.
In late December, two bodies were found in the Mekong River at the Thailand-Laos border. The autopsies of the first two corpses confirmed the identity of Kraidej and Chatcharn. Surachai remains missing.
Several of the dissidents had large followings on social media, making them disproportionately influential. And they were voicing their criticisms at a particularly fraught moment in Thai history: the transition from the widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October 2016, to his son Maha Vajiralongkorn, a far more sinister and unpopular figure. Defenders of the monarchy — including the generals who seized power in 2014 — viewed any criticism of the new king as profoundly destabilizing.
Pavin, too, has been drawn into this conflict. He moved from Singapore to Japan in 2012 to take up a job at a university there. The junta identified him as an enemy shortly after the 2014 coup, ultimately issuing a warrant for his arrest. The authorities revoked his passport, forcing him to apply for refugee status. His family in Bangkok has been harassed.
But he has continued to criticize the monarchy. His 180,000 followers on Facebook give his words considerable impact — as the generals and king know all too well. Thai exiles believe that the palace has a special hit squad run by Gen. Jakrapob Phuridech, a senior security official who is close to the king. (Shades of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.)
The government’s critics both at home and abroad continue to fear its wrath. It’s hard to know what’s coming next. But the attack on Pavin — coming in the wake of so many other atrocities against journalists — merely confirms what many of us already suspected: Around the world, freedom of speech is fighting for its survival.
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