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Turbulent Thailand

From Kyoto to Paris, Thailand's tradition of exile lives on

Dark times present leaving as the solution, whether for musicians or royalty

Thailand's history of coups and strict law of lese-majeste have pushed many activists and political leaders into exile. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

BANGKOK -- Early this month, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat who edits the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia in Japan, said he and his partner were attacked at home in bed early on July 8 by a masked man with a nonlethal chemical spray.

Pavin's allegation is being investigated by Japanese police, but any suggestion of Thai government complicity has been strongly rebutted by the army chief, Gen. Apirat Kongsomgpong. "We have our hands full in addressing problems internally in Thailand," he told Reuters. "And to think that we dispatch people to go assault people overseas -- that is impossible."

There was another development earlier in August that also put a spotlight on Thailand's political exiles.

Faiyen, Thailand's best known band on the run, exchanged self-exile in Laos for asylum in France after a well-orchestrated international campaign. Formed in 2010, Faiyen ("cold fire") was popular among anti-establishment "Red Shirts" for catchy pop numbers that challenged the monarchy and draconian law of lese-majeste.

The musicians fled Thailand after the coup of 2014 to avoid interrogation. Tanat Thanawatcharanond, also known as Tom Dundee, an activist singer who did report to the junta was prosecuted for lese-majeste, and only released in July after a royal pardon.

Concern for Faiyen's safety was heightened by recent disappearances in Laos. Wuthipong 'Kotee' Kochathamakun, a Red Shirt activist, was abducted in Vientiane in July 2017 by 10 Thai-speaking armed men and is presumed dead.

In December 2018, veteran anti-monarchist Surachai Sae-Dan (Danwattanusorn) also disappeared, along with two colleagues, Kraidej Luelert and Chatchan Buphawan. There is no trace of Surachai, but the shrouded, disemboweled corpses of the other two were found a month later along the Thai side of the Mekong, their faces smashed and bodies filled with concrete.

"Exile is a Siamese Siberia, except some of the high ranking people sent to Siberia sometimes made it back," David Streckfuss, a U.S. academic based in Thailand, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Here, you never make it back."

The whereabouts of Chucheep Chiravasut (Uncle Sanam Luang), an underground broadcaster, and his assistants Siam Theerawut and Krissana Tubthai are unknown, but Thai authorities deny their secret rendition from Vietnam. Human rights monitors suspect they may also be dead.

The list of Thai exiles goes on and includes much more prominent figures. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been living abroad since 2008 to escape a corruption conviction. In 2017, his youngest sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, fled through Cambodia to avoid imprisonment. According to reports, she obtained Serbian citizenship in late June.

"After the 2014 coup, a lot of intellectuals felt very demoralized and started to conceive of a future somewhere else," Streckfuss said. "They just felt it was intolerable."

Thai exiles can be found in Paris, London, Los Angeles, Helsinki, and Phnom Penh, but history tells they are by no means pioneers.

Puey Ungphakorn, the Bank of Thailand's longest-serving governor, and later rector of Thammasat University, took up permanent exile in the U.K. after a violent rightist backlash in 1976. Social critic Sulak Sivalaksa left at the same time for two years. Puey's youngest son, Giles, an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, bolted for England in 2009 to escape a lese-majeste charge.

Yingluck's flight through Cambodia replicated an earlier escape. Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) raced to the border in a Ford Thunderbird after a coup in 1957, never to return -- he died in Tokyo in 1967. Phibun's deeply corrupt police chief, Gen. Phao Siyanon, was allowed to leave for Switzerland, where he died in 1960.

Even then, the element of deja vu was not new. In 1946, Phibun's arch rival, Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong, fled Bangkok downriver on a small fuel tanker in the muddled aftermath of the unexplained death by gunshot of King Ananda Mahidol. Pridi spent years in China, but died in Paris in 1984.

In 1973, a student-led uprising forced another prime minister, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, abroad.

Bangkok saw some of the largest protests in Thai history in late 1973. These were met with violence but eventually led to the three-year exile of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, the disgraced prime minister.    © Reuters

Indeed, of the 29 people who have been full prime ministers (not acting) since Thailand's first attempt at constitutional democracy in 1932, five have gone into exile. That is more than one in six.

Exile was also the fate King Prajadhipok who in 1933 left for England, ostensibly for medical treatment. He abdicated from there in 1935. King Ananda and his brother Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej, the future king, were brought up in Lausanne, Switzerland, with their mother and older sister. The young royal family spent World War II in relative safety there while Thailand was under Japanese occupation.

A few political exiles have been able to return to public life. After the government of Chatichai Choonhavan was toppled in a coup in 1991, the prime minister's son Kraisak and one of his ministers, Chalerm Yubamrung, both found temporary sanctuary abroad. Kraisak later became a senator and Chalerm held various senior cabinet positions, including deputy prime minister to Yingluck.

Senior military figures on the losing side in the 13 successful and nine failed coups Thailand has seen since 1932 were often sent -- or allowed -- abroad while matters cooled. Chatichai Choonhavan, a young cavalry officer on the wrong side of the coup that unseated Phibun, was sent across the world to become ambassador in Buenos Aires. He spent 16 years abroad working his way up the diplomatic ladder, ending up as foreign minister and eventually prime minister.

In 1981, General Sant Chitpatima, the deputy army chief, lingered for two months in Burma, as Myanmar was then known, after his failed 'April Fool's Day' coup before being allowed to come home without penalty. As always, the generals played by their own rules.

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