Many faces of dissent
Some Thais, unhappy with the political situation or facing arrest or detention, have fled and are trying to encourage change from a distance.
In a dining room in Queens, New York, Thai journalist Jom Petchpradab sits at a table loaded with Chinese food, juggling conversations on dog grooming and political exile. Next to him, an iPhone dangles from a charging cord plugged into the ceiling.
Unwelcoming party: With political gatherings outlawed in Thailand, coup critics have taken the opportunity to protest abroad, such as during Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s visit to New York.
Jom starts to describe how he fled Thailand after the coup. And in almost the same breath, he asks a young man next to him whether dogs need to be bathed before they are groomed. His tone remains light and easy, but he does not share much detail.
Later, Jom tells Spectrum the full story of how he left Thailand — of a rushed decision to leave the country, of nightmares of people breaking down the doors.
“I dreamed that as soon as I boarded the plane, someone was going to arrest me and put me in front of a firing squad,” said Jom, who spent more than 20 years covering news and politics in Bangkok.
“I was incredibly stressed, but I knew that I couldn’t go back.”
Jom was in Cambodia when he received news that he was on a list of people called in to report to the military government. It was June last year, only weeks after the coup, and hundreds of activists, journalists and politicians were being summoned by the military government.
Those who failed to report within 24 hours were told they would be breaking the law.
Jom’s friends in Cambodia, many of them academics and human rights activists in exile, told him there was no point in going back to Thailand, where he would likely face detention. They told him to leave immediately.
Jom had been planning to take a break for a few months and had already obtained a US tourist visa, but hadn't planned to leave so soon. Even though he was “completely unprepared”, Jom took their advice. He boarded a plane from Phnom Penh that night and, a day later, arrived in San Francisco with little more than three sets of clothing and a handful of cash.
LIFE IN EXILE
Jom’s story isn’t an isolated one. It’s a story shared, in one way or another, by hundreds of Thais who live in self-imposed exile. Many were forced to flee after the coup, but others left even earlier to escape charges of lese majeste.
Some exiles have disappeared into obscurity , choosing to settle into new lives. But others continue to stay in the limelight, posting criticism through social media or setting up groups in the cities where they are based. Scattered across different corners of the world, these exiles continue to advocate for democracy and human rights in the country they’ve fled from. For many of the exiles who spoke to Spectrum, the desire and call for reform continues to drive much of what they do.
For Jom, who is his early fifties, life in exile means a continuation of his work as a journalist. A former TV and radio host for outlets such as iTV and MCOT, Jom had interviewed a number of high-profile political figures, including Thaksin Shinawatra while he was in exile. Jom hosted shows on Channel 11 and Voice TV before the coup.
His criticism of the government, however, did not always sit well with his supervisors.
“The more I kept opposing the NCPO, the more people called me a traitor and a black sheep. People called me a selfish person who wanted to be famous,” he said. “TV channels saw me as too much of a political symbol and told me I needed to disappear from the screen for a bit.”
Symbolic protest: Anti-coup activists flash the three-finger salute on the anniversary of the 2006 coup in Bangkok in September.
Now, from Los Angeles, Jom runs Thai Voice Media, a YouTube channel where he interviews political dissidents and discusses Thai politics. Jom was the first to interview Kritsuda Khunasen, an activist who was detained for 29 days by the military. In that interview, Khunasen claimed she had been blindfolded, beaten and suffocated with a plastic bag — the first allegations of torture to come out of the coup and to spark international calls for an investigation into her case. The NCPO dismissed her claims, saying they were fabricated.
Jom doesn’t smile very much, but he lights up when he talks about his work. He says adjusting to life abroad hasn’t been easy — he took sleeping pills every night for three months to deal with his stress — but his work keeps him going.
“I work morning, day and night, but it’s exactly what I want to do,” said Jom, who had to learn how to shoot, edit and broadcast entirely on his own.
“My goal is to create a space for Thais to actually talk about the things they couldn’t talk about when they were in their country,” he said. “I want to amplify these voices of dissent. The more the government wants to suppress our voices, the more I want to amplify them.”
A year and a half after the coup, the military government’s crackdown on public criticism has intensified. Human Rights Watch estimates the government has summoned at least 751 people since the coup. Political gatherings of more than five people remain banned.
Sarah Repucci, an analyst at Freedom House, a rights advocacy organisation based in the US, describes Thailand’s press freedom as one of a “continued high level of repression”.
In its 2014 report on the media, Freedom House downgraded Thailand’s freedom of press status from “partly free” to “not free”, citing the lese majeste laws, internet monitoring and the use of defamation cases against journalists as impeding press freedom. Recent government plans to monitor internet activity under a single internet gateway have also sparked concern over government surveillance.
“Under military rule, no journalist can have confidence in his or her legal protections when these can be arbitrarily changed by decree, when there are no checks and balances and when authorities are unaccountable,” Ms Repucci said.
Lese majeste cases have also been on the rise. In August, two people were given a record sentence of 28 and 30 years in prison for posting Facebook comments deemed insulting to the monarchy — a sentence so harsh the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the Thai government to amend the law.
THE NEED TO CRITIQUE
Because of such government suppression, exiles feel strongly about calling for justice.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, said he will continue to criticise the military government as long as it maintains its oppressive policies.
"The government is violating human rights and we have to acknowledge that it’s happening, no matter the scale," Mr Pavin told Spectrum from Stanford University in California, where he is now on a fellowship. Mr Pavin, who has long been a vocal critic of the military, says he saw his name on the summons list soon after the coup, but refused to report — partly because he was in Japan at the time.
“Why should I report? What did I do wrong? I didn’t kill anyone. I was just doing my work as an academic,” he said. “I was angry and rejected [the summons] right from the beginning.”
Mr Pavin said the NCPO revoked his passport after he refused to report a second time. Military officers also “checked in” with his family.
At a recent rally in New York, Mr Pavin called the military regime “thieves” and held a sign that read: “Why did you revoke my passport?” He maintains he has done nothing beyond doing his job as an academic.
“We have to keep criticising human rights abuses, because if we remain silent, then it creates a culture of impunity,” said Mr Pavin, who was able to secure refugee status in Japan. “It deepens certain mentalities in Thailand — the mentality that the abuse of human rights is OK.
“We’re caught in this situation where we get angry, but we can’t call out. And as time goes by, people forget … until it gets to the point where we know that there will be no retribution. Where it becomes past tense.”
A VIEW FROM THE OUTSIDE
For Thais who left the country before the coup, much of their views revolve around creating a sense of political awakening among Thais at home — even from the outside.
Snea Thinsan, who is better known by his alias Piangdin Rakthai, is the executive director and co-founder of the Thai Alliance for Human Rights, a non-profit organisation based in San Francisco. A former Chiang Mai University professor, Mr Snea also runs an online university where he lectures on the need for human rights. He moved abroad before the red shirt movement in Bangkok in 2010, but continued to comment and criticise the government on web boards such as Pantip and Prachatai.
“We can no longer communicate in the language of red or yellow — we must communicate in the language of human rights,” said Mr Snea, who applied for and received political asylum in the US in 2010. “We have to create a deep, structural understanding that goes beyond Thaksin, street riots or the military, and look at the inequalities in society and the network of the [elites].
“If you don’t see the person next to you as someone who is as equal, then isn’t that wrong? Isn’t that sick?” he asked. “There is a profound sickness in society if that is the case.”
Mr Snea is open about the fact that he’s a red shirt, at least in ideology. He describes himself as a “revolutionary”, and makes references to Che Guevera, Karl Marx and Paolo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher.
When asked how effective he feels it is to advocate from abroad, and whether he worries about being out of touch with Thailand’s current political situation, he shakes his head.
“I probably get to see a lot more than if I were in the country. Nothing is blocked here,” he said. He holds up his phone and says that through his Line groups, he gets all the messages and video he needs.
Mr Snea hopes to use his non-profit organisation to build a network of Thais in the US who will advocate for change in Thailand.
“Truth is like power, and it can be as powerful as a weapon,” he said. “What I really believe is that no change comes as much as it does than in your heart and in your mind.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this if I was in Thailand,” he points out.
Jakrapob Penkair, one of the founding members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, spoke of a similar need for Thais to face up to fundamental flaws in their society and “prepare” for certain changes to come. Mr Jakrapob left Thailand in 2009 and lives in self-imposed exile, in a location he does not want to be disclosed.
“I feel as if Thailand is approaching the end of innocence,” he said over Skype.
“No matter how much we dislike each other or disagree, we have to learn how to make the most out of our common ground and find political leadership that will exercise our political will. Democracy, in other words.”
Last year Mr Jakrapob spoke of setting up a government in exile under the Organisation of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy, or Seri Thai. But because of political and internal conflict, he says the movement has “collapsed”.
“It was not meant to be a popular movement, and it’s not going anywhere because it wasn’t meant to be around,” he said. Although he mentions that Seri Thai has set up a sizeable network, he says it “doesn’t mean much unless it engages with people in Thailand”.
For his part, Mr Jakrapob acknowledges that change must come from within. He can’t instigate change from abroad, but hopes he can help prepare Thais through what he calls “media, cultural and educational systems”.
“We should become an adult country,” he said. “We have to start taking responsibility for putting the country in the right direction and we have to keep trying and voting until we get it right.”
He admits his exile has left a “big gap” in his life and he misses all the little details of Thailand — the food, friends, grilled meatballs, roadside snacks.
“I’ve lost so many years, but it’s a worthy gap,” he said. “If it’s the price to pay for wanting to change the country, then that’s the price you pay.”
YEARS UNTIL RETURN
In September, the military government’s National Reform Council rejected its draft constitution. For Thais at home, that means there may not be a general election until 2017. And for those in exile, it means many more years before there will be a chance to return.
Sitting in a house in Jamaica, Queens, Jom said he doesn’t regret his decision to leave. He has applied for political asylum and is now waiting for a decision.
“Sometimes I feel like I have to lie to myself a bit to convince myself that I don’t miss Thailand,” he said. “Thailand is my home. It’s my birthplace.”
He added, however, that he feels free — more than he ever felt in Thailand.
“I made the right decision,” he said. “I’m less afraid. I feel like I have an imagination, like a bird set free from its cage. I have hope.”
Reporting for duty: Journalist Jom Petchpradab lives in self-imposed exile in Los Angeles after ignoring a military summons. He now runs a YouTube channel which focuses on Thai politics.
Still speaking out: Jakrapob Penkair addresses a red shirt rally in 2008 before his self-imposed exile began in 2009. He says Thailand is approaching the end of its innocence.
Critical thinking: Pavin Chachavalpongpun, second right, joins activists at UN headquarters to denounce the military regime during Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s visit to New York in September.