In Thailand, Activists Are Literally Fighting For Their Lives
“That’s now eight activists who have gone missing. We’re on their ‘wanted’ list too and with all the other targets eliminated, we could be next. We are like calves, waiting to be sent to the slaughterhouse.”
Surachai Saedan's grieving widow, Pranee Danwatananusorn. Photo by Tawan Pongphat.
Nithiwat Wannasiri, known as ‘Jom’ to his friends, feels scared and trapped. The 32-year-old musician and activist is one of dozens of Thais who fled the country to escape persecution by the military, which seized power in 2014.
In Thailand, Jom faced charges of violating martial law for his part in an anti-coup protest, as well as four counts of breaking the notorious lèse majesté law, which severely punishes anything that “defames, insults, or threatens” the monarchy.
As a vocalist for the folk group Fai Yen (literally: Cool Fire), Jom used music with satirical lyrics to comment on Thailand’s volatile politics, including the highly sensitive topic of the monarchy. He also campaigned for the lèse majesté law to be abolished and provided assistance to those facing charges or imprisoned.
Convictions for lèse majesté are often long. In 2015, a man was sentenced to sixty years for Facebook posts deemed critical of the palace. The secretive trials are conducted behind closed doors and, since the army takeover, have been held in military courts. The chances of winning a case are practically nil, so most defendants choose to plead guilty in the hope their sentence is reduced.
With the odds stacked against him, Jom and the rest of the Fai Yen band opted to escape by slipping over the border. But the neighbouring country they sought refuge in has offered scant protection and many activists like them are now missing, presumed dead. Shaken by rumours of a “kill list”, they too fear for their lives.
Since the military coup, at least eight Thai dissidents in neighbouring countries have disappeared. The first was Itthipol Sukpan, or DJ Zunho, who hosted a political YouTube channel while in exile. Disheartened by the outlook in Thailand, Itthipol had actually given up his activism and was eking out a living selling fermented fish. He nonetheless went missing in June 2016, reportedly snatched by men in camouflage clothing. At the scene of his abduction, one of his shoes was found lying beside his abandoned motorcycle, alongside a basket of fish.
The next to disappear was Wuthipong Kachathamakul, known as Ko Tee, a firebrand anti-monarchist who had fled Thailand, in part due to provocative comments he made during an interview with VICE News for the 2014 documentary “Bangkok Rising—Is Thailand on the Brink of Civil War?”
In July 2017, Ko Tee and his associates were seized by ten black-clad Thai men, who gagged them, covered their heads with hoods, then assaulted them with tasers. The others were able to escape, but Ko Tee hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
Then, in December 2018, the friends and families of three other Thais in exile grew worried when they suddenly went silent. One of the three, Surachai Saedan, was well-known for his communist activities in the 1970s and more recently as a leader of Red Siam, an anti-monarchy splinter group of the pro-democracy Red Shirt movement. Surachai slipped over the border after the 2014 coup with two of his associates, Chatchan Bupphawan and Kraidej Luelert.
Shortly after the men went missing, two corpses were found washed up on the shore of the Mekong River at the Thai-Laos border. The bodies had been handcuffed, disemboweled, and stuffed with concrete, then tied up in large plastic bags and dumped in the river. DNA tests confirmed they belonged to Chatchan and Kraidej.
Seventy-six-year-old Surachai is also presumed dead. I spoke to his wife, Pranee Danwatananusorn, at a memorial service in Bangkok in January. She told me that a third corpse was also found by local villagers on the Thai side of the border, but then mysteriously vanished. Local press informed her the body had a pre-existing ankle injury that matched one sustained by her husband when he was young. She has been petitioning authorities to look for answers, but isn’t optimistic she will ever find them, or his body.
“I married him because he was always caring for other people, doing what was right, and what he thought was best for society, even if it caused him problems,” she told me. “I’m sad that his life has to end like this, especially in such a cruel way. Just because he thinks differently from others? Is it really a reason to kill him?”
The murders came as a blow to Jom, who was close to Surachai. “Ajarn Surachai and I took part in political activities together while we were in Thailand and stayed in contact during our exile,” he told me, referring to the older man respectfully with the Thai word for teacher.
“We sometimes shared accommodation and even used to go fishing at his cabin a few times per month,” he continued. Jom believes the orders for the killing came from the Thai government, with assistance from the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and business connections in the neighbouring country.
Now, three more Thai exiles are missing. One of them is radio DJ Chucheep Chivasut, whose broadcasts under the name ‘Sanam Luang’ were well-known among anti-junta activists. Like the others, Chucheep left Thailand after the coup to avoid lèse majesté charges. He and two other exiles, Siam Theerawut and Kritsana Thapthai, were reportedly handed over to Thai authorities after they tried to enter Vietnam from Laos using fake passports. But the Thai government has denied all knowledge of the case and concern is now mounting over their welfare and whereabouts.
The mother of one of the men, 34-year-old Siam Theerawut, has recently gone public in the hope of saving her son. “I beg you, please don’t take his life, I have only one child,” she pleaded tearfully in a video uploaded to social media. “What did he do that was so wrong that you want to kill him? Please show me mercy, don’t hurt my Siam.”
According to local media, Siam is a former student activist with a degree in political science from Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng University. Along with others, he found himself facing charges of insulting the king for his part in a theatre performance satirising Thai politics. A couple of the actors spent two-and-a-half years in jail for their part in the play. Others, like Siam, decided to flee. In her video, his mother estimated that the odds of him still being alive are “fifty-fifty”.
With each new disappearance, Jom and the Fai Yen group have grown more anxious. “Our current situation is quite worrying,” he told me. “That’s now eight activists who have gone missing. We’re on their ‘wanted’ list too and with all the other targets eliminated, we could be next. We are like calves, waiting to be sent to the slaughterhouse.”
For many of Thailand’s more hardline royalists, the dissidents have gotten what they deserve. “These damn people are the trash of our nation. They will burn in hell for their wicked ways,” says one commentator on a right-wing YouTube channel. “They are going to end up dead on the street like stray dogs,” says another.
Romchalee Sinseubpol, known as Yammy, is the only female member of Fai Yen. She wonders where such hatred comes from. “I’ve been receiving aggressive comments online, including death threats, for about four years now,” she told me. “I don’t want to be anyone’s enemy; we’re all Thai citizens. I just want them to understand my perspective. I know their opinions and I don’t agree with them—but it doesn’t mean I want to kill them.”
Despite the clear danger they face, Jom, Yammy and the other members of Fai Yen have nowhere to go. Most of the dissidents who fled Thailand to neighbouring countries did so with the intention of using them as a stepping stone to go elsewhere.
But frustratingly complex procedures, high bars for acceptance, never-ending waiting times, and mounting financial difficulties have conspired to make this dream seem impossible. Since the first exile disappeared three years ago, they have applied for asylum several times, but are always denied.
If she can get out to a third country, Yammy hopes she can get a job so she doesn’t have to depend on charity from others. Once she gets some stability in her life, she will continue her activism and help people who are in the same precarious situation she finds herself in now. Jom also spends time thinking about the future, but is currently more concerned about the present. “The important thing right now,” he told me, “is to survive”.
James Buchanan is a PhD Candidate researching Thai politics at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong. Follow him on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.