Fighting the junta from abroad: Struggle goes on for Thailand’s political exiles
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Fighting the junta from abroad: Struggle goes on for Thailand’s political exiles

I got out of the country… so that one day my stories could be forgotten… so that I could go back home again.

By Asanee Waree

Hundreds of political asylum seekers have fled Thailand to escape the pursuit of the Thai military regime since last year’s coup. Renowned activists like Aum Neko and Jarun Ditthaapichai have shared their stories of exile, highlighting the threats to their lives. But for lesser known exiles, the choice to speak out is fraught, and tempered by hopes of a quiet return.

The danger of living in military-ruled Thailand

Game, a 19-year-old student, lived in fear of his safety before he escaped from military-ruled Thailand. “I was afraid… My family was afraid. My friends were afraid,” he said. “They didn’t even want to talk with me because I’m targeted.”

Game was at risk of arrest for performing in ‘The Wolf Bride’, a university play deemed offensive to the Thai royalty – a lese majeste crime that carries a sentence of 3-15 years in prison. Two of Game’s friends were sentenced to 5 years in prison for taking part  in the play.  In fear of facing the same fate as his friends, Game went into hiding, eventually crossing the border into exile .

Game’s experience was one of necessity: Once his fellow performers were arrested, he had no choice but to leave the country or face arrest. “I didn’t want to be a mover or an activist,” Game said, and he cannot seem to believe that he was forced into exile as a mere teenager.  He was only months away from turning 20, and feels like “just a kid who had to exile himself”.

Game’s fear is  shared among all the exiles who gave interviews. There is Bua who also participated as an actor in the ‘The Wolf Bride’ and expresses similar concerns to Game. Bua describes how the military issued arrest warrants for actors like him in various localities and how he had no choice but to leave the country “to preserve my rights and freedom”.

ThailandLesesMajestePatiwat-Saraiyaem

Patiwat Saraiyaem, center, is escorted by Thai corrections officers upon arrival at a Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand, earlier this year at his trial for his involvement in the play ‘The Wolf Bride’. Others involved in the play have fled Thailand. Pic: AP.

Then there are Khun-Thong Fai Yen and Jom Dok Mai Fai, who are part of an exiled music group that aims to inspire people to take political action from abroad, and Anucha, who is a professor and acts as an English translator for political activists in exile. Both Khun-Thong and Jom say that they fear for their safety. Jom Dok Mai Fai felt the threat quite clearly. Last May, he was thrown in jail right after the 2014 military coup for just getting together with a group of friends to talk politics. He had contravened the military regime’s “absurd law” that prevented more than five people from collectively engaging in a political gathering. Anucha is more ideological, saying that political activists like him did not leave Thailand to simply escape from the dangers of dictatorial actions but to “fight back” against them.

Living Conditions

Life in asylum was more of a choice for Khun-Thong, Jom and Anucha’, all self-identified “activists”, yet not an easy one. Khun-Thong has to live on a US$100 per month stipend which goes towards food, water, and electricity – a far cry from the $1,000 per month he used to earn in Bangkok playing music.

While exiled activists in Khun-Tong’s area get housing and living stipends from sympathetic political groups, he is very clear that “no activist can live well here”. It is “almost impossible” to find a job given that he can perform in public and has neither the funds nor the network  to start a business abroad. Due of his economic situation, Khun-Thong considers himself as only “half-free” while in exile.

According to Khun-Thong, he is also an “activist with a burden”. He used to provide the main income for his family. Now his has to struggle to make ends meet while he is exiled. Somehow, Khun-Thong always knew that one day his opinions would force him to leave the country. But this does not take away from the “stress, pain and shame” of not being able to support his family.

Even in exile Anucha, continues to live in fear as the military junta is pushing to apprehend him from abroad. Claiming that asylum seekers like Anucha are terrorists, Thai authorities are trying to aid their extradition process.

Activism from abroad

As members of the “Fai Yen” band, both Jom and Kun-Thong aim to inspire people to take political action through their music. Jom explains that “at the end of the day… hope depends on the people to understand all the facts.”  He produces music as a way to communicate with young listeners in Thailand. “As long as you actively listen and think about what we have to say, you’re already part of our movement,” he says.

The exiles also stay connected to the rest of Thailand via social media. Though Anucha and Bua are quieter, they remain active on social networks and support anti-military movements in Thailand through the Internet. One of the goals of Anucha’s online activism is to encourage Thai people to “fight for their freedom and living”.

He argues that toppling the military regime in Thailand largely depends on the people’s understanding of the hidden political structure in Thai society and their readiness to fight for themselves. Bua sees expressing his thoughts via social networks as his own way of contributing back to society.

Hope for the future

The exiles’ attitudes encapsulate the current atmosphere among Thailand’s activists – stuck between apathy and embryonic protest against the military regime. “I don’t know if [my activism] is worth it or not but at least we have to try our best,” says Jom. But Bua admits that he is scared to oppose the military as he is doubtful of how much can really be accomplished through activism.

Game, for one, would simply prefer to return home. “I got out of the country… so that one day my stories could be forgotten… so that I could go back home again,” he says. But since the way back is blocked, Game recently began working as a disc jockey for an online radio station that takes a stand against military coups. He is now using his position abroad as a “tool to bring about change to Thailand.”

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* Anucha and Bua’s names have been changed for anonymity. Aside from the interview with Anucha, the interviews have all been translated from Thai.

** The exiles’ locations have not been revealed.

*** Asanee Waree is a nom de pleur.