The loneliness of the long-distance exile
Thais forced to leave their country after the coup find life is a struggle
A year into his political exile in France after the May 22 coup, Jaran Ditapichai describes himself as a soldier without a battleground.
Red shirts rally on Utthayan Road in Bangkok before being dispersed after Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha staged a successful coup. (Photo by Tawatchai Kemgumnerd)
“I’m in a democracy now, I’m no longer on the battlefield,” he says, with apparent nostalgia for his protest leader days.
Stepping out of public transportation unnoticed, the former human rights commissioner and red-shirt intellectual orders his drinks in hesitant French, mocked by a waitress who can’t understand him. He covers the slight embarrassment with knowledgeable remarks about his choice of beer.
At the end of the day, he prefers to sit in a som tam restaurant owned by fellow red shirts. There, he can get a familiar meal and — probably more important — a heavy dose of political discussion to keep his beliefs and determination alive.
Mr Jaran, 68, is among a number of Thai red shirts taking refuge in Europe following last year’s coup. Although Thai authorities and mainstream society consider them anti-monarchists, they see themselves as political dissidents, fighting for the cause of democracy.
Previously charged with lese-majeste over the performance of the Wolf Bride play — viewed as insulting to the monarchy — and his role as a core organiser of the event, Mr Jaran was among the first red shirts to be summoned by the military. A core leader of the red protests, he vanished on May 22, just as soldiers closed down the rally site on Utthayan Road on the outskirts of Bangkok.
Mention red-shirt political dissidents in exile and it conjures up a picture of a network of activists joining forces in a concerted move to topple the regime. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Mr Jaran.
“There is no way such thing could occur,” he says wryly.
In June 2014, Mr Jaran joined other exiled Pheu Thai figures in forming the Free Thai Organisation for Human Rights and Democracy. Originally designed as a government in exile, they are confronted with many obstacles and criticised by other coup opponents for being inactive.
“Truth is, there is only so much one can do from abroad,” he said.
Weighing the mixed results of the Free Thai Organisation, he adds that for a movement to succeed, the push must come from within.
The red-shirt intellectual argues that most of his work is diplomacy-related and includes meeting with foreign officials or civic groups to discuss Thailand’s political situation, with the aim of triggering international sanctions against the government.
Such goals, however, are difficult to meet, he admits, citing the fact that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) isn’t a fully-fledged dictatorship and this is taken into account by the international community.
However, the biggest hurdles the organisation faces are internal. The Free Thai group numbers around 20 people, he says, but only four will disclose their identity. These former interior minister Jarupong Ruangsuwan, former PM’s Office minister Jakrapob Penkhair, former Pheu Thai MP Sunai Jullapongsathorn, and Mr Jaran himself.
The others prefer to remain anonymous because they fear they will be linked with lese-majeste accusations. According to him, the organisation also suffers from its Pheu Thai “brand”, which dissuades many coup opponents from joining them.
Mr Jaran is not alone in his gloomy view of the political exile movement. “The red shirts in Europe aren’t a unified movement,” says Aum Neko, a former Thammasat student and activist who is also a political exile in France.
A lese majeste charge was lodged against her in 2013 and then right after the May 22 coup. Apart from being unable to carry out political activities and protests, the prospect of arrest and a heavy jail term of three to 15 years made her decide to leave.
But continuing a political life in exile is not easy. More often than not, it is difficult to organise a protest or coordinate actions as there are many disagreements between members, which undermine their common goal, she says.
Their financial situation isn’t so bright either, all agree. Red-shirt sympathisers in Europe tend to be less wealthy than those living in the United States.
Ms Aum and Mr Jaran say they receive a stipend from their host government. This income amounts to a few hundred euros per month. The activists often have to work on the side to afford a basic level of comfort, which leaves them less time to deal with politics. Ms Aum says she looks after children when she isn’t busy studying or thinking of protests.
While the Free Thai organisation relies mostly on donations, many supporters have now either fled Thailand or are being detained by the army, according to other members.
The funds are also being distributed to several groups opposed to the NCPO, meaning that the money is scattered. “It’s 1,000 baht here, another 2,000 there,” says Mr Jaran.
The money only covers some of the members’ expenses such as travel costs needed for their work. This is bound to become a serious problem in the future, he adds.
Most red-shirt activists have fought for nine years now or longer, he says, and the budget for political activities is lacking.
“Many people tell me the situation isn’t like in the Pheu Thai or red-shirt peak time anymore,” says Mr Jaran, who notes that their morale has reached a record low.
Despite the odds, they try to continue political activities by raising foreigners’ awareness on what they view as violations of civic rights and liberties in Thailand.
On Labour Day, Ms Aum and Mr Jaran and six red-shirt sympathisers joined a workers’ rally in Paris, holding up signs calling for the release of political prisoners in Thailand, which sparked some interest among bystanders.
For labour rights activist Junya Yimprasert, who is a political exile in Finland, she says she tries to focus on the positive.
“I’m using this safe space to write about issues which are sensitive in Thailand, such as lèse-majesté charges and political prisoners,” she says. But she knew that from the moment she released her controversial essay on the monarchy in May 2010, that she could no longer return home.
At the time of publication, the author was giving a series of talks in Europe and extended her stay as a result of the numerous threats she received. Following the lese-majeste charge, she sought political asylum in Finland. Last year, the NCPO revoked her Thai passport.
Ms Junya’s political movements include a protest against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha during his Italy visit last October. A month later, three-finger salutes were taking place in Paris and London, as the new Hunger Games film hit the screens. Then came a lull.
Like other political exiles, Ms Junya cannot escape the grief that comes with being uprooted.
“We often ask ourselves if we made the right decision,” says Ms Junya. Although she never regretted hers, as a worker’s rights campaigner, Ms Junya feels pained at being unable to continue her cause at home.
“It breaks my heart that I’m no longer able to go back and help solve matters which are important to me and to Thailand,” she says, adding the thought haunts her.
The pain of being an exile occurs at many levels and is often tied to a feeling of loneliness. The labour rights advocate formally resigned from her work and severed all ties with her family to prevent them from being persecuted or stigmatised due to their association with her.
“People in Thailand now view me as a criminal. They call me ‘Thaksin’s slave’ and post defamatory pictures of me on the internet,” she adds. Once a respected labour rights advocate, she found the abrupt change most difficult to bear.
Like Ms Junya, Ms Aum and Mr Jaran also noted that acquaintances were more reluctant to keep contact with them, largely out of fear of the NCPO.
The former revolutionary who still thinks of himself as a fighter says his emotions are affected by exile as well. He envies those who stayed in the heat of the action and can still be with their loved ones.
From time to time, Mr Jaran picks up his phone to browse through messages. He holds it up beaming, saying that he just received news from his wife who remained in Thailand to take care of her mother.
According to him, most couples divorce when faced with such a situation. But they didn’t want to separate, as they remain in love with each other.
“She was never an activist. She always refused to accompany me to protests,” he says.
Although his personal future looks bleak, Mr Jaran feels that the situation has changed within the past year, as politicians, civil society and the media have become emboldened in demanding rights and liberties from the NCPO.
Political activities and criticism of the NCPO have increased, with students now in the front line as well as lawyers, academics and citizens. This is only the beginning, he believes.
“However, my chances of ever returning home are extremely slim. The lese-majeste charges are irrevocable,” he says.
He consoles himself with the fact that he can now reside legally in Europe, where he says he has rights, social security and a pension for the elderly.
He smiles proudly when announcing he is the second Thai citizen to be granted political asylum in France, after Pridi Banomyong and his family.
“This exile will probably be my last fight,” he says.