The man fighting against dictatorship also has an iron fist
The man behind a popular Facebook page critical of the Thai monarchy and military has been left to defend himself against allegations that he employs an authoritarian approach in running the online discussion group.
These accusations come from not only his detractors, but also those who back his cause.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a self-exiled academic living in Japan, is accused of censoring messages written by members of the controversial “Royalist Marketplace” group he launched in April.
Pavin, 49, lectures at Kyoto University’s Southeast Asia Studies Centre, where he has been employed since 2012.
The discussion group – which has over 1 million members – drew the attention of Thai authorities after repeated complaints that it published posts attacking members of the Royal family.
Late last month, Facebook blocked “Royalist Marketplace” in Thailand, though the group is still available in all other countries. The social-media giant’s move came after court takedown orders were secured by the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society.
In early August, the ministry accused Facebook of failing to comply with requests to restrict banned content, including insults to the monarchy. On August 10, Facebook was given 15 days to comply with the court orders or face charges under the Computer Crime Act, which carries a fine of up to Bt200,000 and an additional Bt5,000 per day until they are observed.
Focus on monarchy
Royalist Marketplace has now been replaced by a new Facebook page with a slightly different name, but Pavin is still the sole administrator. Created on August 24, the new group “Royalist Marketplace – Talat Luang” (royal market) has drawn almost 1.2 million members.
The administrator’s rules call for members to focus their messages on Thai royalty. “The chance of getting approval for your posts is lessened if they are unrelated to the monarchy,” states a rule.
A royalist group last week called on the Japanese government to deport Pavin back to Thailand to face justice for insulting the monarchy. Their four-point demand was submitted to the Embassy of Japan in Bangkok on August 25.
The recent Facebook blockade put Pavin under the spotlight of international media, who sought his views on the issue.
“I’m furious because this is something that I am passionate about. I just want to see Thailand become more and more democratic,” Pavin told a US media outlet.
He also criticized Facebook for its decision to block his discussion group in Thailand. “By accepting the [government’s] requests, whether you like it or not, you become a part of that — you become a part of the support that you gave to the authoritarian regime in Thailand,” he said.
Criticized by allies
However, Pavin has also come under strong criticism for his tough screening of messages on the discussion forum.
“The ‘marketplace’ … is disturbingly similar to the Thai semi-military government’s desire for control over what content can appear in Thailand and what must not,” a Thai journalist wrote in an article published on August 30.
“Ironic isn’t it? A man who is fighting for the right of Thais to exercise online freedom of expression is also a rather active gatekeeper, stopping what he doesn’t see fit to be published in his online marketplace,” wrote the journalist, who is regarded as a critic of the military.
Pavin lashed back at him and others who criticized him for censorship, including human-rights activist Nuttaa Mahattana, whom he accused of being envious of his 1 million-strong group.
Pavin is seen as one of the two top mentors of the student-led protest movement – the other being monarchy critic Somsak Jeamteerasakul, who has lived in self-imposed exile in France since the 2014 military coup.
Large images of both men appeared on the main screen during a rally at Thammasat University last month, when protest leaders announced their 10-point manifesto for reform of the monarchy.
A staunch critic of the military regime and the monarchy, Pavin was summoned twice by the junta after the coup. He dismissed the order and asked mockingly if he could send his pet chihuahua to meet with the junta leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha instead.
In June that year, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order issued a warrant for Pavin’s arrest. His passport was later revoked, which he said forced him to apply for refugee status with the Japanese government.
In April 2017, the junta declared it illegal to exchange information on the internet with Pavin, Somsak and journalist-academic Andrew MacGregor Marshall – all of whom are wanted in Thailand on lese majeste charges.
Attacked in bedroom
Pavin and his partner were reportedly targeted in a bizarre attack while asleep in the bedroom of their Kyoto house in July 2019.
A masked man sprayed a chemical substance on the two men in the bed before fleeing, reports said. The victims were treated at a nearby hospital and told police they felt a burning sensation on their skin, but doctors were unable to identify the chemical. The Japanese police investigated the incident – which Pavin described as an attempt to intimidate him into silence – but no results have been reported.
Born in 1971 in Bangkok, Pavin graduated from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science. He received his master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
In 1994, he joined the Foreign Ministry, working there for 13 years before shifting to academia. Prior to joining Kyoto University, he had worked as a researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Pavin contributed opinion articles about Thailand to local newspapers including The Nation and the Bangkok Post, as well as to the Washington Post.
He is among a group of Thai academics campaigning for reform of the monarchy and changes to Article 112 (lese majeste law), which he said is routinely employed by conservatives for political gain.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk