Opinion: The Short-sighted Hunt for Anti-Monarchists

Thai activists and Kanya Theerawut, second right, mother of Siam Theerawut, hold the portraits of Siam Theerawut outside Vietnam Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, May 13, 2019. (AP photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Having watched those who share similar anti-monarchist ideology progressively disappear or be killed, Nithiwat Wannarisi probably knows his days are numbered if he doesn’t move.

Last week saw three republicans go missing. Siam Theerawut, 34, is among those reportedly missing. It is believed that Siam and two others well-known anti-monarchist Youtuber Chucheep Chivasut aka Uncle Sanam Luang, and Kritsana Thapthai were extradited to Thailand after trying to enter Vietnam on forged Indonesian passports.

The three are members of the Organization for Thai Federation, an underground network that aims to turn the Kingdom of Thailand into a federal republic. In a country where the monarchy is revered if not worshiped by many Thais, they are a vocal minority and have crossed the line of what is considered acceptable by royalists.

Nithiwat, a 32-year-old republican who fled Thailand to a neighboring country after the May 2014 coup, knew at least one of them fairly well. On the phone, he sounded frustrated, full of angst and disappointment.

Read: Family Hopes Missing Republican is Still Alive

“They are hunting us one by one. I know I can’t safely stay [in this country]. Human rights organizations and the West should have paid attention since the first case of disappearance occurred,” said Nithiwat.

He was referring to republican activist Ittipon Sukpaen, aka DJ Sunho, who was last seen in Laos in June 2016.

No one deserves to be forced to disappear, like Surachai Danwattananusorn and two of his companions who went missing late last year in Laos. The bodies of Surachai’s two aides floated up the Mekong river, mutilated and with bullet wounds. Surachai remains missing to this day. In all these cases of disappearance, the Thai authorities have denied having any knowledge or involvement.

The lese majeste law, with its 15-year maximum imprisonment term, may be controversial, anachronistic and even draconian – but it’s still better than enforced disappearance or extrajudicial killings.

One wonders if there aren’t enough royalists in Thailand to ensure a sense of security. Is that why the state is so paranoid and threatened by a handful of republicans? It’s hard to believe the state had no hand in the deaths and disappearances of now eight republicans who fled to Laos after the coup five years ago.

A Thai activist holds the portraits of Siam Theerawut outside Vietnam Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, May 13, 2019. (AP photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The junta may succeed in instilling fear in the hearts of those who do not support the royal family, but the brutal fates befalling these republicans is a sober reminder that terror is not alien to the Thai way of life.

How will the mysterious disappearances and deaths of vocal republicans win the hearts and minds of those who are either against or ambivalent towards the monarchy? If anything, they may plant the seeds of future anti-monarchy sentiment in the long run.

Some republicans have successfully fled to Europe and the United States while others, including Nithiwat, are still stranded not far from Thailand.

Nithiwat told me that it’s hard for people like him to secure asylum status in the West because he is not famous or high-profile.

After nearly five years of applications and rejections, Nithiwat has yet to secure a host in a European country. He declined to say where he is currently living.

“The power that we are up against is fear-inspiring. No one will easily accept and host me,” Nithiwat said.

What’s worse, among the 40 to 50 Thais who originally fled to the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, Nithiwat believes some have since switched sides and are now working for the Thai state.

Sounding exasperated and bitter, Nithiwat said no exiled republican who fell out of contact for longer than a week ever reappeared.