Argument

Home Away From Home

Pro-democracy activists from Thailand are banding together in exile rather than submitting to the military junta.

MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images
MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images

Attachai Anantameak leads us down a narrow alley and up a flight of stairs into an apartment that serves as a safe house in a country neighboring Thailand. (I’ve concealed the precise location in the interests of his security.) Sitting by a floor-to-ceiling window with the blinds drawn on a bright August afternoon, he expresses outrage at his homeland’s turn for the worse. Gesturing distractedly, Dong, as he is known, rails against the military junta that now rules his country. “These people stole our freedom, they stole our democracy,” he says. “Prayuth and the generals came to power illegally and we should not recognize them.” He’s referring to Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former top officer who became prime minister after orchestrating a coup d’état against the country’s elected government on May 22. “I should be the one summoning them for questioning!”

A former Thai film star, Dong once enjoyed the fruits of fame — but the comfort of that life came to an abrupt end when he appeared on stage at a 2010 rally for the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, a group closely linked with supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In 2006, a military-led coup removed Thaksin from power, setting off eight years of political turmoil and instability between sympathizers of Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party (the “Red Shirts”), most of whom come from the more rural and impoverished areas of the country, and the anti-Thaksin movement (the “Yellow Shirts”), consisting largely of wealthier Thais from Bangkok. When the army declared martial law, the film star knew another coup was imminent. And as a well-known activist, he was a likely candidate for arrest. So he made preparations to flee.

Now Dong is trying to figure out what to do with his life. He’d like to go back home someday, he says, but if things keep going the way they are right now, his exile could turn out to be permanent. “Maybe if more people were like us and didn’t report to the junta, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in,” Dong observes, seemingly disappointed that many of his fellow activists didn’t have the courage to refuse military orders to present themselves for punishment. Dong remains unsure whether his decision to flee the country will ultimately enable him to oppose the junta more effectively. But he’s convinced it’s better than quietly accepting the military’s edicts under martial law.

[The Threat of Exile from Foreign Policy on Vimeo: The above video was co-produced by Jonathan Schienberg and Luis de Leon, with funding provided by the Global Reporting Centre. It is hosted in partnership with Democracy Lab and Foreign Policy magazine.]

Dong is one of many Thai democracy activists that have been chased into exile for voicing their opposition to successive military coups and crackdowns in recent years. There is no clear count, but Human Rights Watch and exile organizers estimate that hundreds have fled the country in the last decade, the majority heading for safe houses in neighboring Cambodia and Laos. Dozens of other exiles are scattered throughout Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan, Europe, the United States, and a few other countries. (The most famous exile of them all, of course, is Shinawatra himself, who was overthrown in a 2006 coup and convicted on charges of abuse of power two years later.)

While the coup this past May has been debilitating for personal freedoms in Thailand, it has also quietly inspired an increasingly united front of Thai exiles across continents, a rage fueled by the Thai military’s repeated assaults on democracy.

Many of those exiles are now working together through their involvement with Free Thais for Democracy and Human Rights (FTHD), a nascent opposition movement that is largely comprised of exiles from Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States. The group has held Skype video chats with exiles across the world to discuss broader strategies to fight back against the junta, including plans for uniting with Thais who have remained at home.

Early one morning, in yet another undisclosed location in a country bordering Thailand, I hopped into a jeep with tinted windows, which sped me off to a meeting with one of FTHD’s founders. He is Thaksin Shinawatra’s former press secretary, Jakrapob Penkair, who is wanted in Thailand on charges of lèse-majesté (for allegedly criticizing Thailand’s widely revered king) and terrorism (for weapons possession, an accusation Jakrapob describes as “absurd”). The military government recently revoked his passport. As we sat in the lush garden of yet another safe house, Jakrapob explained to me that FTHD is not intended to be yet another offshoot of the Red Shirt movement. Instead, it’s supposed to work as an umbrella organization for pro-democracy, anti-dictatorship activists, enabling them to work together and conduct business safely outside the country.

On Sept. 19, the eighth anniversary of the 2006 coup against Thaksin, FTHD had planned to launch its new website. By press time it was still not live; in a recent email, Jakrapob said the delay was not due to debate over the organization’s vision, but rather over “how to achieve it, which is common for such an undertaking.” According to several exiles, the movement has already begun work. They were involved in helping to organize a protest last month in Milan (pictured above) that drew hundreds of anti-coup marchers during a visit by the Thai prime minister. They’re also developing a draft constitution to counter the one currently being drawn up by the junta. Once the website is live, Thai citizens at home and in exile will be invited to voice their opinion on the constitution’s makeup.

David Streckfuss, an American expat who has lived in Thailand for more than 25 years, and who has written a book about the country’s draconian lèse-majesté laws, says that the impact of the FTHD has been limited so far given the sweeping attempts by the military junta to intimidate and silence anyone who speaks out against the regime.

“The mere existence of the FTHD has clearly shaken the military junta, as it has overreacted to any Thais outside the country suspected of sympathizing with the movement,” Streckfuss says. “While they haven’t achieved much yet, it’s quite possible that FTHD may become the main opposition group, representing a broad swath of exiles, pro-democracy types — academics, students, former Red Shirts, and human rights activists.”

Many of these exiles left after the May 22 coup, which heralded the most extreme rollbacks of civil liberties of any military takeover in Thailand’s modern history. (The 2014 coup is the 12th of its kind in the country since 1932.) The new cabinet — which unanimously chose General Prayuth as its new prime minister — has dramatically reversed the course of one of Southeast Asia’s most democratic governments. At least 50 Thai citizens have already been charged with crimes related to their activism, the most common being insulting the monarchy, which can carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Since the coup, the junta has leveled lèse-majesté charges against at least 14 people, including two student actors who participated in Thammasat University’s 2013 production of a play that commemorates a pro-democracy uprising in 1973. In addition to the arrests, the new government has banned any type of organized rallies, curtailed freedom of public expression (including the Hunger Games-inspired three-finger salute, the latest symbol of the protest movement), and rolled back electoral rights.

Colonel Weerachon Sukondhapatipak, the military’s main spokesman, told me that the military has implemented these measures to prevent the type of chaotic protests that engulfed Thailand prior to the coup. According to the colonel, the military is simply trying to restore order by “adjusting attitudes,” stopping dissidents from “confusing the people” by writing or saying anything deemed provocative. (Recently, for example, the military arrested family members of a slain activist for violating martial law, accusing them of contributing to the “confusion” by handing out flyers demanding justice for their son.) The message seems to be that the current restrictions constitute merely a sort of temporary “time out” for free speech in Thailand. When asked how one could possibly know what would be considered criticism too provocative, the colonel couldn’t provide a definitive answer.

Aum Neko is one of those activists who refuse to heed military orders — though, in her opinion, she didn’t have much choice. Neko is a 22-year-old transgender university student who has staged a series of dramatic protests — complete with zombie makeup, fake blood, and lewd signage — in recent years. In the demonstration that turned her into a media sensation, she pulled down the Thai flag that hung at Thammsat University and replaced it with a black flag.

Neko has been living as an exile in a Southeast Asian country for the last three months, and just recently left for Paris to seek asylum there. A popular Thai TV host reported to the authorities that she’d insulted the monarchy during an interview for his show, prompting a criminal charge. Neko denies the accusation, and says the military has never shown her the evidence that supports it. She says has no regrets about her decision to flee after being summoned this past May. She said she never would have gotten a fair trial, and would have faced grave danger had she turned herself in.

“They would have likely brought me to the male jail, and since I’m transgender, this would have been a very dangerous situation, as there are no protections for transgender [people],” Neko said. “There’s a lot of sexual violence against transgender [people] there.”

Neko is eccentric, giddy, and likes to make cat noises. (She’s obsessed with cats, and her adopted name “Neko” is actually Japanese for “cat.”) Given her youth, one wonders if she might be a bit naïve about the potential long-term consequences of her actions, which could leave her in exile for many years to come. If extradited, she could end up in a Thai prison for up to 15 years due to her brash public criticisms of the monarchy’s role in the coup on social media while in exile. But, like her fellow exiles, she sees her role as crucial in keeping the anti-coup movement alive in Thailand. Too many Thais back home, she says, are resigned by fear and fatigue to accept their fate as a coup-driven culture.

When asked if she hopes to return to Thailand, her tone turns from playful to serious. She misses her family terribly, and believes she’ll have to wait five to 10 years to return home. By then, she says, the monarchy will have come to an end and Thailand will hopefully become a republic. The idea of Thailand without an all-powerful monarchy is hard to fathom. King Bhumibol has been in power since 1946, making him the world’s longest serving chief of state. But there are whispers across Thailand of the King’s frail health, and growing fears about the lack of a strong successor.

Though Neko’s timeline might be overly optimistic, exiles are doing all they can to aid the democracy movement from outside.

Jakrapob is upbeat about FTHD’s ability to put Thailand back on the road to democracy. Speaking on the latest developments within the country, he sighs and then chuckles: “How can you bring happiness back to the people when you are depriving them of their basic dignities?” he asks. “I think time will clearly tell whether the people are happy without their basic rights.”

It’s popular for Thais — and particularly those who support the coup — to argue that their semi-feudal system makes the country unique, and that Westerners just don’t get it. But Jakrapob says that is just a long-running excuse that’s held Thailand back, and kept antiquated ideas and rules in place. As he explains, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Scandinavian countries also have monarchies and real democracy, so Thailand isn’t the first to have both.

“The question is, would the monarchy really be willing to reform?” he asks. “You can have 10 more military takeovers, but will that really change the popular view of the country. Or will people really want real democracy? I think they will, and we’re going to prove that.”

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