Pavin Chachavalpongpun has been known as a fierce critic of the Thai Army since before Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha staged the coup d’état in May 2014. After the coup, he continued to criticize the junta leader in his mischievous and acerbic manner on his Facebook page, but also in frank and serious articles and interviews. Gen Prayut got so irritated that he called Pavin “a jerk” (คนเฮงซวย in Thai.)
The political scientist was the first among many academics to be summoned to report to the junta. Pavin defied the order; his passport was cancelled and he is wanted on an arrest warrant. Unlike other political exiles who have to flee secretly on foot to a neighbouring country and struggle to find a way to a third country, Pavin has an associate professor position at Kyoto University’s Southeast Asia Studies Centre.
How is your life in exile so far?
I can live my life very normally, thanks to the Japanese Government who helped me on refugee status. This enables me to travel abroad. Travelling is an important part of an academic career because most of my work takes place in other countries. I really appreciate the help of the Japanese Government because my Thai passport has been cancelled.
For academics, it is very important to connect with foreign academics and academic institutions. I just came back from a work trip to the States, again thanks to the Japanese Government.
Kyoto University, which has employed me since 2012, has supported me very well. The university confirms that I am protected because it is obvious that I am politically persecuted.
The Japanese Government has never told me to stop criticizing the Thai junta or anything, but I am aware that I should do so only in my capacity as an academic.
What do you think is the reason that the junta decided to summon you and later issued an arrest warrant against you?
I don’t think the reason concerns any particular article, but my continuing criticism of the Army. They have monitored me for long time and I am on the monitored list. When the coup d’état happened, they used this opportunity to silence such people.
I’m a very frank person. It’s also my nature to challenge things that I’m not allowed to do. It’s my character. Moreover, I must be truthful to my career. I teach Thai politics, so it’s inevitable that I have to criticize the Army and the Thai monarchy whereas many academics have set their own limits by not touching upon the two institutions. I consider this a betrayal of an academic career.
I notice that you’ve never directly criticized the monarchy in a way that may constitute a crime under Article 112. Why?
I criticize the monarchy in the role of an academic. I may express my personal views, but that’s all. I can understand people who advocate a republic, such as Suda Rangkupan [formerly a linguist at Chulalongkorn University and red-shirt activist in exile.] That’s their role.
Nevertheless, personally, I still see the importance of the monarchy. But the monarchy will survive only if it follows the democratic path. I still have hope for it. Ironically, some people have accused me of aiming to overthrow the monarchy. Let me make myself clear; I have called for the amendment of Article 112, but that is for the future of Thai monarchy, not because I’m against it.
Really? Don’t you try to play safe? Are you avoiding Article 112 charges so as to minimize the barriers to coming back to Thailand?
Of course not. Honestly, returning to Thailand is important, but if it’s not possible, I can live with it. You can see I haven’t really lived in Thailand for 20 years. I may have visited Thailand quite often, but I never really lived there. I am used to this kind of life. Therefore, I can assure you that I am not compromising my stance on the Thai monarchy.
How do you see the situation of academic freedom in Thailand after the coup?
Awful. I didn’t anticipate that it would come to this point. Academic freedom is upheld almost universally. Otherwise, society can’t move forward as there’s no space for freedom of thought.
On 24 May 2014, the day I was summoned, I thought it was a joke. I thought there would be nothing because I have the status of an academic. It turned out I was too naive. It was getting serious. An arrest warrant was issued, followed by my passport being revoked.
How long will the Thai junta rule?
It must be long. The 2014 coup differs from the 2006 coup in the sense that the previous one was aimed at eliminating Thaksin [Shinawatra], but the latest one is to manipulate the transition, and no one knows how long it will last. The junta are now taking advantage of the political vacuum and people’s anxiety about the transition. In the end, everything is impermanent. The junta must be in power long enough to ensure that the transition is smooth. The junta will step down only when it has made sure that the benefits that the Army receive remain the same.
At the same time, the junta is constructing a new political structure. This is also to ensure that the establishment will continue to give itself leverage and that Thaksin will be cut off from Thai politics.
The success of the reign of Rama IX is magical. Overly successful. However, when we look at the future, and compare, we are anxious that the future may not as good as it is now. The coup is to manipulate this anxiety.
What could lead to the end of the junta?
I think it’s internal pressure, rather than pressure from outside the country, such as economic stagnation. Bread and butter issues will lead to the decline of the junta. Thai people are politically rather passive. If there is no burning issue, they can be apathetic. We’ve seen an anti-junta movement in the past months. A few people were arrested, but it created no waves. It’s going to be bread and butter issues that affect everybody which will weaken the power of the junta.
How do you see your own future?
I have never claimed that what I do will mobilize changes and my expectations are not that high, anyway. I however will continue what I do because it’s my role as an academic. I do hope to return to Thailand because my family is there. But if I have to close my ears and mouth, I’d rather stay outside.
How do you see Thailand’s future?
For Thailand’s future, I do see a light at the end of the tunnel. The next reign may lack the quality of predictability that this reign has, and may lead to fluctuation. However, in this fluctuation, we may see good things happen. [Prachatai will not report Pavin’s following analysis as it may constitute lèse majesté.]