The mother of change

Nuengnuch Chankij does not seek fame from the political popularity of her son Sirawith Seritiwat or 'Ja New'

Nuengnuch Chankij and her political activist son, Sirawith Seritiwat or 'Ja New'.

Her profile is not a fascinating story of a revolutionary mother. She's just a striving housewife juggling her many odds job as a housemaid, a fortune teller and a mother of four children. The eldest one of which happens to be a big pebble that is clanking in the powerful military's boots.  

Nuengnuch Chankij's super-extra-large size doesn't impede her commuting around Bangkok and its suburbs. Sometimes she biked from her home in  Minburi to Ngamwongwan near Nonthaburi or Rangsit -- it would take more than an hour by car -- to clean houses or to read horoscopes for clients.

On the interview day, she got her boyfriend to drive her around. The guy popped up in her life a year ago with the acknowledgment and relief of her son. Nuengnuch's ex-husband, to whom she was married for more than 30 years, had passed away five years ago -- about a month before her son, Munint Eiamrod, would bring a good news to the poorly-educated family that he was admitted to study political science at Thammasat University.

A few years after his father's death, Munint told his mother he would change both his given and family names.

"They are too ordinary, too common. Changing them to a new set of names would make one feel respected and it may bring me luck," Nuengnuch recalls her son telling her.

Hence came Sirawith Seritiwat, the new name that both mother and son chose. But even that sophisticated name is still less popular than the nickname of "Ja New", a student activist who has evoked the wrath of authorities over the past year.

Nuengnuch is a plump, dark-skinned, brisk and cheerful mother who has often shadowed her son in the past few months in the height of political tension, often waiting for her son at police stations where he was called in. Last week, Nuengnuch waited with bated breath after news that Siriwith had been taken away by unidentified men at night -- only to be released hours later.

Generally, people smiled at the pair with humour and admiration. Those closer to them realise that the mother and son are fearless and straightforward.

Before "Ja New" was briefly abducted and allegedly beaten last week, Nuengnuch had already felt heavy-hearted about the psychological torment the military had put her family through, especially last December, when the military prevented Sirawith from leading a group of students on a train tour to Rajabhakti Park in Prachuab Kirikhan.

That day she received hundreds of phone calls -- from dawn to dusk -- from the military. A daytime spent talking to a local military unit wasn't enough, as in the night the military made rounds of visits to her house.

Then came the latest incident -- as ungentlemanly and very unlawful one in the eyes of the international community.

"His friends called me that night saying New was whisked away. The story of Somchai Neelapaijit just flashed in my head. Would my son become another victim of enforced disappearance?" said Nuengnuch.

Don't be surprised as the high-school educated mother is not an ignorant person -- she loves reading books and catches up with her four children via social media.

"My heart just sank when he said the military knocked him down too. It was the first time he was hit like that," said Nuengnuch, who turns 40 in March.

A single mother of children between the age of 23 and eight, Nuengnuch has always put high hopes on her eldest child. She just wanted him to graduate, regardless of his choice of subject.

She's not bothered over whether he would engage in any social and political activities. The only condition she ever asked of him was that he should not get jailed. She said sometimes she felt solitary among the activists because whenever she was out there in the public, her son would be in his own world with his activist friends.

"Yet, it's better that he's still in my sight. I just keep my distance and my silence," Nuegnuch said, adding that being with her son was quite a burden to the family as she would lose her daily income.

"At times, I was telling to myself that I should take some money as well. After all, people already accused us of getting Thaksin's money, but we're still struggling," said Nuengnuch, who just changed her Facebook profile with a satirical word: "No image, Never Create Any", a jab at those who think she would seek fame from her son's popularity.

She maintains that her family doesn't have any big ideologies. "I can't help if people say I am more of a friend to my children than a parent. I work hard and they see it. They have seen inequality and injustice since they were young -- for instance, poor chaps in our neighbourhood who could not even get cremated in certain temples."

She told her children to focus on their education while she was out at work. If they don't study, they will have to go out and work with her too. "I do everything, from mowing the lawn to transporting trees for gardens. I won't push them if they don't want to be in school."

When Sirawith was a teenager, his father and other relatives suggested he should enrol in a cadet school, but the son furiously refused.

"I asked him what he would do with a degree in political science. He said he could be a governor. I rather fancy myself as a Madame Governor, as my son is unlikely to have a girlfriend just yet," said Nuengnuch, with a laugh.

The mother even asked the son if he was gay. But Sirawith, whose face is regularly in newspapers, said he didn't want to lose this exciting and adventurous part of his life like his parents did. Nuebngnuch was 16 and her husband was 19 when they started their family.

"When I asked him to get ordained as a monk so I can go to heaven, he said, 'mother you have to make merit today and not wait to get to heaven through my saffron robe'. Since then, I wasn't bothered," said the outspoken Nuengnuch.

Without intending to, she now has to shoulder the limelight and endure the bumpy roads as the mother of this well-known activist.

"I think of Jit Bhumisak's mother. She must feel heavy-hearted. The difference is my boy is not in the jungle but fighting here."

She does remain optimistic. "The world has changed and the military could not be as barbarian as they were in the past, people shouldn't be brainwashed like they were in October 1976, when people hung others on trees and stuffed shoes in the corpses' mouths.

"Thailand has some brave men and women here. And they just have to do what they have to. I just have to stand firm," said Nuengnuch, as she wandered away on the motorbike with her boyfriend.

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