Top-secret list shadows Thailand’s never-ending battle against its ‘enemies’

This month, a top-secret document emerged in Thailand. It revealed not only a list of 183 people deemed enemies of Prayut's military-backed government – among them a monk, a journalist and two 15-year-old girls – but also a paranoid state's long-standing urge to purge 'unThai' elements

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August 27, 2021
Top-secret list shadows Thailand’s never-ending battle against its ‘enemies’
Riot police hold batons and shields as they face off with protesters taking part in a demonstration calling for the resignation of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha in Bangkok on August 16. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

When Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, the former magazine editor and current pro-democracy activist, shared on Facebook earlier this month what appeared to be a copy of an old top secret document that classified opponents of the military-backed regime, it didn’t take many by surprise. 

The list, which emerged on August 9 and may have originally been released by the Move Forward Party – whose Secretary General and at least two members of Parliament are named – contains individual photos, Thai ID numbers and passport numbers. Generally, only governments have access to this level of personal information.

Thailand’s list of enemies contains a total of 183 names, most of which are regime critics, activists, Thais in exile, a monk, and a journalist. While the list may feel like old news to many who have found their names attached, its revelation shadows Thailand’s long obsession with its enemies.  

Frequently described as a paranoid state by critics, regimes both past and present have worried feverishly about enemies and their potential threats to revered institutions and pillars of power. And, the land of smiles has a storied history of making examples of those it deems subversive. The political upheaval of the early 1970s saw Thai university students – namely in the form of the National Student Centre of Thailand – thrust into the national spotlight as democratic heroes, sending the cruel regime of Thanom Kittikachorn into exile. 

However, after the horrific events of October 6, 1976, when right-wing paramilitary groups and security forces massacred students at Thammasat University, they were soon vilified and portrayed as characteristically unThai and enemies of the “nation, religion and king”. The state under Thanin Kraivichien saw their allegedly communist ideology as a national security threat, and soon student groups went from mobilising to hiding.

Self-exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun (also included on the list) once wrote that an enemy, among other things, signifies “negative elements that are supposedly extrinsic to ‘Thainess’ and deserve to be eliminated”. These unThai individuals or groups are often labelled enemies of the state. However that doesn’t mean, according to Pavin, that enemies and “othering” aren’t useful for the survival and the legitimacy of the establishment, as the selection of enemies – particularly internal ones – helps bolster regime legitimacy and safeguards their hold on power. 

This is a new generation of enemies. And they’re young – two girls 15 years of age are also included

Thailand’s list of “others” no longer includes communists or a majority of politicos loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. This is a new generation of enemies. And they’re young – two girls 15 years of age are also included. 

Among the names included are Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, and human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, all of whom face multiple charges, including lèse majesté and sedition. Their entry onto the protest scene in Bangkok comes after the dissolution of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta that ran Thailand between May 2014 to July 2019, although Parit’s activity stretches back into his high school years.  

Mahidol University student Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong, barely into his twenties, is also one of the more recent additions. He believes that it was his proven capacity as a protest organiser that bothered Thai authorities. Two specific examples made major headlines within a span of months. First, he expressed solidarity with Taiwan and Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region at a planned demonstration outside the Chinese diplomatic mission in Bangkok. Second, he stands charged along with two other protesters for attempted violence against the Queen, supposedly delaying her motorcade as it passed by a protest site last October. The charge could get him life in prison or the death sentence at worst.

His thesis about his run-in with the Queen and the events leading up to it is that the authorities pressed charges in order to justify a severe emergency declaration. It was just a few days later that Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced a new emergency decree banning gatherings of more than five people, as well as the ability to hold protesters without charge for up to 30 days. In his boldest news conference to date, Prayut warned protesters not to “challenge the grim reaper”.

Pro-democracy activist Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak makes the three-finger salute as he is released from the Bangkok Remand Prison on May 11, 2021. Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP

The government’s concern over this new generation of protesters is likely linked to Thailand’s changing social and political norms. Topics that were once just whispers are now open public discourse. 

In contemporary Thai history, the identification of enemies has been closely linked to Thailand’s triumvirate and bastion of nationalism. Recently, the regime has pulled nearly everything under the sun under the wide umbrella of national security, from traditional forbidden topics such as the monarchy to threats directed at the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This generation, however, has succeeded in creating vulnerabilities to what has been a tried and true method of creating and maintaining enemies of the state. 

After making critical comments on Facebook about the appointment of senior monks, Phra Panya Seesun, a progressive Buddhist monk, fled Thailand and now lives in exile in Europe. His comments were directed at the 2018 introduction of an amendment to the Sangha Act, which grants King Maha Vajiralongkorn power to appoint members of the Sangha Council, the main governing body in Thai Buddhism. The decision, said Panya, blurred the lines between church and state, and marked a return to royal power relations seen during the era of King Chulalongkorn over a century ago. 

Panya, who used to live at Wat Yanasangvararam in Chonburi, is now isolated from his former community. He felt that his activism has cost him both his freedom and the social inclusion that other monks provide. Prior to his posts on Facebook criticising the monarchy, his whole life was dependent on that community. 

Panya’s activism is a threat to the government’s attempt to both control the Sangha and to revive traditional Thai values or a renewed romanticism about conservatism – trying to evoke an era where there was a perceived common sense of identity and unity, or “Thainess”. Unfortunately for Prayut, there was never truly a common Thai identity. It was a myth. 

The reality is that the rips in the fabric of Thai society are being made larger by an increasingly abrasive government, fundamental disagreements about how Thailand should be governed, and shattered social taboos. Panya’s contribution to rebellion and activism within the Thai Buddhist order coincides with royalist frustrations over a more vocal, far less conservative body politic – and it explains his addition to the government’s list. 

The most appalling category, Group D (or delete), includes individuals that the government deems necessary to dispatch, if they were to resist

Self-exiled Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun address protesters through a live video call to condemn the military-aligned government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha during a pro-democracy rally in August 2020. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

Unsurprisingly, Thailand would not be the first state or senior leader to keep an enemies list, although it is far less common that these lists make their way to paper. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the US under J. Edgar Hoover famously kept a dossier on a host of enemies and “subversives” in the 1950s and 1960s. Hoover was paranoid about communist threats against the US, and conducted intelligence operations against American citizens he deemed were radical leftists, communists, or anarchists. Both American Presidents Richard Nixon and Donald Trump also kept tabs on their enemies

The Thai government’s method of categorisation is also sinister. The NCPO divided the names into four types in a separate leaked document, dated back to when the junta was still in power. Group S includes opposition politicians and bureaucrats that could be bribed or won over through incentives, benefits or other rewards. Group R includes those that require restriction, threats or monitoring, such as dissident academics and journalists. Group C includes those that must be arrested. While the most appalling category, Group D (or delete), includes individuals that the government deems necessary to dispatch, if they were to resist. 

Another addition, Yaowalak Anuphab, the head of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), has spoken with others included on the list, such as Pravit Rojanaphruk, the senior staff writer and correspondent for Khaosod English and former Nation columnist. The TLHR confirmed that some of those on the list will submit a letter to the Immigration Police, asking them to delete the list. Pravit said on Facebook that he would be at the Immigration office on Friday, August 27, as well as at a press conference following the submission of the letter. Pravit also said that it is possible that those listed may need to petition the Constitutional Court.

The obsession of the Thai regime with the creation and the maintenance of enemies will continue. Enemies present governments with a narrative and a justification for violence, as well as the implementation of laws and rules that insulate the regime from potential vulnerabilities. 

Lists are extremely effective in mobilising support or hardening a sense of group identity, which is currently under threat in Thailand. The wider goal with this list, is to build a narrative that foments distrust of subversive groups. As the number of ad-hoc groups, civil society organisations, academics and individuals grow in defiance of the government’s performance, there will be no shortage of future enemies.

Mark S. Cogan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.

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