By THOMAS FULLERJUNE 6, 2014
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Thailand, long the liberal bastion of Southeast Asia, has traditionally been a haven for refugees from its less democratic neighbors. Now, in the wake of a recent coup, a small group of Thai intellectuals are making the reverse journey — heading to Cambodia and other more repressive nations as their own country cracks down on dissent.
A leader of the exile community, Jakrapob Penkair, said dozens of professors, activists and politicians had fled Thailand in recent weeks, as the leaders of the Thai junta detained hundreds of prominent people in what many consider a campaign of fear meant to silence critics or drive them out.
“Lots of us won’t be coming home very soon,” Mr. Jakrapob, a former government spokesman, said at a riverside restaurant here in the Cambodian capital, where he has met regularly with other Thai exiles since arriving in 2009.
He now hopes to organize some type of resistance to the junta from outside the country, though he said he would have to proceed carefully so as not to put “friendly countries in an awkward position.”
In decades past, the notion of fleeing Thailand for an authoritarian country like Cambodia would have seemed absurd to those accustomed to Thailand’s freedoms, even amid a series of coups. Instead, the relatively wealthy Thailand has been a haven for the oppressed, whether families fleeing the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia four decades ago or persecuted hill tribes in Myanmar escaping attacks by the Burmese military.
That migration continues, but as Thailand has lurched from one political crisis to the next, some said they felt they had had little choice but to flee what they described as increasing intolerance of dissent.
Exact numbers are hard to confirm, because many of those who left fear they are being hunted by the Thai military and are wary of revealing their whereabouts.
One of those exiles, Chinawat Haboonpat, a former member of Parliament for the deposed governing party, wrote a message to his supporters on Facebook on May 22, the day the generals seized power in Thailand.
“Brothers and sisters, I am not escaping,” he wrote, adding that the former interior minister, Charupong Ruangsuwan, was with him. But Mr. Chinawat forgot to turn off a function on Facebook that added his location to the bottom of his message: Toul Kork, Cambodia, a district of Phnom Penh. (The message was later deleted.)
The Thailand the exiles are leaving is hardly the picture of a typical military dictatorship. The curfew imposed after the coup has been lifted in tourist areas and is loosely enforced from midnight to 4 a.m. in other parts of the country. Of the scores detained in the early days of the coup, most have been freed, including former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
But freedom of expression has been sharply curtailed. Thailand’s cacophonous news media has been partly silenced by the military junta, which closely monitors television news and has released detained journalists only under the condition that they not speak out.
The junta has also banned gatherings of five people or more — a rule that does not apply to its own attempts to manage the public mood, which have included staging performances in Bangkok titled “Return Happiness to the People.” The shows, which feature women dancing and singing in camouflage miniskirts, were organized by specialists in psychological warfare, according to the Thai news media.
Nearly every evening, the military announces on television the names of people summoned for questioning or detention. Democracy advocates, academics and anyone who speaks publicly about politics watch with anxiety to see if their names have been added to the list of more than 350 people already summoned. Those released from detention are forced to sign an agreement that bars them from taking part in “political movements.”
“If I violate these conditions or support political activities, I consent to face legal action immediately and consent to the suspension of my financial transactions,” says the military’s document, which the coup makers posted on their Facebook page. The army has threatened to try dissenters in military courts.
Some of those who have been summoned are affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra, Ms. Yingluck’s brother and a former prime minister, who was deposed in a 2006 coup. Mr. Thaksin founded the highly successful populist movement that the military is seeking to dismantle.
On Wednesday, the junta issued a summons for Mr. Jakrapob, the exile in Cambodia who is helping organize others who have fled. Mr. Jakrapob, who helped bring the 7-Eleven chain to Thailand, served in one of Mr. Thaksin’s governments and maintains ties with Mr. Thaksin, who is also in exile.
But also among those who have fled are researchers and commentators who, although outspoken, were not involved in politics.
Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained lawyer who has criticized recent court decisions against Mr. Thaksin’s supporters that he saw as politicized, left for London after, he said, a man riding on the back of a motorcycle fired shots into his house.
“I have to admit,” Mr. Verapat said in a YouTube video uploaded after he left, “I am not sure I would be safe in Thailand.”
Mr. Verapat said he had no connection to Mr. Thaksin and had never spoken with him.
Many members of the Bangkok establishment and the urban middle class supported the coup. They saw it as an effective way to scrub the country of the influence of Mr. Thaksin, whose movement has broad support in the countryside — thanks in large part to policies, like subsidies for farmers, that the Bangkok elite consider wasteful.
Mr. Verapat and many intellectuals saw new elections as the answer to the impasse. But earlier this year, opponents of the government run by Ms. Yingluck disrupted attempts to hold elections, which the party was widely expected to win.
In an indication of the passions in Thailand, Mr. Verapat’s Facebook page has both supportive comments and invective from backers of the coup.
“I think a person like you should die abroad and never return to this country,” read a comment under the name Tanan Tanaratanapisit.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai scholar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University in Japan, said he and many colleagues outside Thailand were afraid to return.
“Most academics I know have left the country,” Mr. Pavin said. “It is no longer safe for them.”
He called the military’s summoning of professors and intellectuals “a cunning strategy of the coup makers in creating a climate of fear rather than to launch a brutal crackdown against their critics.”
Even some people who are not public figures said they found the current political environment stifling, especially what they described as online “witch hunts” by coup supporters targeting those who call for elections.
“I think there will be problems in this country for a generation or two,” said the owner of a catering business in Bangkok who is looking to move to Taiwan. “I’d like to get out of the country safely.”
A version of this article appears in print on June 7, 2014, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: In Thailand, Growing Intolerance for Dissent Drives Many to More Authoritarian Nations.