Reviews | My attacker was imprisoned. But who was pulling the strings?

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Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.

In July 2019, an attacker broke into my apartment in Kyoto, Japan and attacked me with a chemical spray. Japanese police have launched an investigation into the crime, and this week my attacker was finally sentenced to 20 months in prison by a Japanese court.

I have spent the last three years in a state of haunting uncertainty, marked by moments of nagging fear and many sleepless nights. So it’s good to see some justice done. But my attacker’s trial left crucial questions unanswered. The most important is this: was someone else pulling the strings?

The culprit, a 43-year-old Japanese man named Tatsuhiko Sato, admitted his guilt – but remained vague about the rest, saying only that he was persuaded to commit the crime by an unnamed senpai (“senior colleague”). Beyond that, he refused to reveal that person’s name. Despite his silence, I remain suspicious that the attack was orchestrated in Thailand, possibly by the Thai palace itself.

This belief is not unfounded. I am a well-known critic of the monarchy, and my family and I have paid for this status with a variety of threats and harassment over the years. (Shortly after the Kyoto attack, to cite just one example, I was harassed by someone who posted pictures of me online – a clear attempt to intimidate me.)

The Kyoto attack is also part of a broader pattern of transnational crackdown on critics of the monarchy in recent years. Since 2016, a number of Thai dissidents have been kidnapped and killed in Cambodia and Laos. In the aftermath of the 2014 military coup in our homeland, they fled Thailand and settled in neighboring countries, where they began to criticize the monarchy for its intervention in politics.

The most recent case, in June 2020, involved the disappearance of a young Thai activist, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who was living in exile in Cambodia. He was abducted in broad daylight outside his apartment in Phnom Penh and was never seen again. In fact, his abduction helped fuel nationwide protests against the monarchy in 2020; many of those protesting accused the royal family of being involved in Wanchalearm’s kidnapping. Last week, Thai activists commemorated the second anniversary of the kidnapping in Bangkok, using the occasion to demand the truth from the government.

Six months after my attack in Kyoto, a similar incident occurred in Paris. A transgender refugee from Thailand, known as Aum Neko, was assaulted as she left a restaurant. French police arrested two Czech nationals, who had also been hired by someone to attack him. Aum Neko, like me, is a harsh critic of the Thai monarchy. She also fled Thailand after the coup, briefly settling in Cambodia before ending up in France, where she has now been granted full refugee status.

Transnational repression is not a new phenomenon. Authoritarian regimes around the world have long used this tactic to eliminate and intimidate their enemies abroad, even if it means blatantly violating the sovereignty of host countries. Perhaps the best-known case is the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist (and Post contributing columnist) Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been accused of orchestrating the assassination. Khashoggi had long criticized the Saudi royal family in his writings.

Freedom House reports that since 2014, 36 states have used transnational physical repression in 84 host countries. Thailand’s role is remarkable. As host country, Bangkok cooperated with China, Cambodia and Vietnam to deport foreign dissidents to their home countries to face prosecution.

In December 2021, I had the opportunity to discuss this matter with State Department officials. They acknowledged the imminent threat to critics of the Thai monarchy around the world. But while officials expressed sympathy for me and other Thai refugees, they showed little interest in intervening on our behalf, citing relations between the United States and Thailand, which have long been close allies. .

As a helpless refugee vulnerable to harassment from the Royal Thai regime, I call on global stakeholders to seriously address the issue of transnational repression. I call on host countries to put in place the necessary measures to combat transnational repression by improving security, migration and foreign policy, including in the form of targeted sanctions to increase the cost of crimes. I call on international civil society organizations to develop programs for people affected by transnational repression, including social, psychological, legal and immigration support.

And I call on the United Nations to play a more active role in working closely with like-minded governments to set standards and develop multilateral responses, reviewing the protections available to refugees and dissidents, and establishing a special rapporteur for transnational repression.

The ordeal resulting from the Kyoto attack is not over. Japanese police continue to investigate the case. But this story is not just about me. It is also about the safety of all refugees and exiles calling for change in their country of origin.


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