Thai junta's intimidation of academics reveals insecurity: rights group

Soldiers patrol around the Royal Thai Army Headquarters as members of the Radio and Satellite Broadcasters gather in Bangkok June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom (Reuters)

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's junta is intensifying intimidation of academics who criticize the generals efforts to stay in power by sending army officers to their homes, a Thai rights group said on Wednesday. Since the military seized power nearly two years ago, at least 77 academics have been harassed at home by officers advising them to adjust their critical mindset or ordered to attend camps for indoctrination, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Those who attend the camps are usually released within a couple of days. At least five academics have been forced into exile, said Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen, a member of the lawyers group, which provides legal aid and monitors rights violations in Thailand and is influential with international NGOs, the European Union and other foreign governments. "With legitimacy stretching thin and achievements falling flat, the junta feels the pressure to silence critics to maintain its power," Poonsuk told Reuters. The country's generals have struggled to revive Southeast Asia's second-largest economy after ousting a democratically elected government in 2014 to end months of political unrest that was damaging business. There have been scattered protests against military rule, but they were quickly quelled by troops and police. Some Thais welcomed the coup after months of anti-government street protests, but critics accuse the military of delaying a return to democracy by pushing back the date for elections. Rights groups say the junta has used authoritarian methods to systematically repress rights and muzzle critics. In a Feb. 24 report, Amnesty International said Thailand had dismissed international calls not to silence dissent. Last week, self-exiled prominent Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun took to social media to accuse the junta of intimidating his family in Thailand. "To hunt me is already unacceptable. But for them to go after my family is really too much," he told Reuters via Skype. "This has to be the junta's most daring move yet," said Pavin who gives lectures abroad on the Thai monarchy, a sensitive subject that cannot openly be discussed in Thailand because of draconian royal insult laws. Junta spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree denied that the military is pursuing academics with greater zeal and told Reuters he was unaware of any intimidation of Pavin's family. Authorities issued an arrest warrant for Pavin in June 2014, one month after the coup, for ignoring a junta summons to attend a military 'attitude adjustment' session while abroad. His passport was revoked the following month. The junta's pursual of academics highlights its growing insecurity, said Kan Yuenyong, an analyst at Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank. "The military sees academics as a mouthpiece whose messages carry big significance," said Kan. "Their criticism can do a lot to undermine the junta's legitimacy." (This story corrects dates of arrest warrant and passport revocation in paragraphs 15, 16) (Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Simon Cameron-Moore)