‘Democ­racy in Thai­land can start from ques­tion­ing’

Thai refugee ac­cents free­dom of speech

The Korea Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Jung Hae-my­oung haemy­[email protected]

On Jan. 16, 25-year-old Thai col­lege stu­dent Chanok­nan Ruam­sap re­ceived an ur­gent phone call from her friend who said Ruam­sap had been in­dicted for in­sult­ing the royal fam­ily and could be jailed for up to 15 years if caught.

Ev­ery­body ad­vised her to leave her coun­try. She had a few choices in­clud­ing Hong Kong, the Philip­pines and Korea — coun­tries that had signed the 1951 UNHCR pro­to­col to ac­cept refugees, and had le­nient visa reg­u­la­tions.

Ruam­sap landed in Korea the same day, and be­came the first Thai refugee rec­og­nized in the coun­try, just 10 months af­ter ap­ply­ing for refugee sta­tus.

“I was very grate­ful when I heard the news, be­cause my friends said it was very hard to get per­mis­sion in Korea,” she told The Korea Times.

Thanks to the May 18 Me­mo­rial Foun­da­tion that sup­ports young ac­tivists fight­ing for democ­racy around the world, she was able to find ac­com­mo­da­tion in Gwangju.

Be­fore this, she was just an or­di­nary stu­dent at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity with a pas­sion for pol­i­tics.

How­ever, the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in her coun­try was un­cer­tain af­ter a mil­i­tary coup in 2014, fol­low­ing which the army en­forced ex­treme loy­alty to the royal fam­ily.

In the midst of this, Ruam­sap founded the New Democ­racy Move­ment in 2016, and shared a Facebook post from the BBC that crit­i­cized the Thai royal fam­ily — an act which led to the in­dict­ment in Jan­uary this year.

“Af­ter the coup d’etat, pub­lic as­sem- bly with more than five peo­ple was not al­lowed, and the mil­i­tary ar­rested and re­leased us (ac­tivists) re­peat­edly when we de­manded democ­racy. We were taken to mil­i­tary courts in­stead of civil­ian courts,” she said.

The ar­rests were jus­ti­fied un­der the law of “Lese-ma­jeste,” which pun­ishes a per­son who “de­fames, in­sults or threat­ens the king, the queen, the heir-ap­par­ent or the re­gent” with up to 15 years im­pris­on­ment

“Por­traits of the royal fam­ily can be seen ev­ery­where in Thai­land, in­clud­ing schools, pub­lic of­fices, hos­pi­tals and even zoos, but Thai peo­ple do not re­al­ize th­ese are cre­ated with their taxes,” Ruam­sap said.

“In­sult­ing the Thai king is to turn one’s back against the Thai pub­lic, be­cause they are taught to love the royal fam­ily,” she said.

Al­though some say the es­sen­tial prob­lem for Thai­land is the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship, the royal fam­ily, or the law, Ruam­sap be­lieves “ed­u­ca­tion” is the root cause. She says she could have been one of the peo­ple prais­ing the king if she had not met cer­tain pro­fes­sors at the univer­sity.

“I used to be a per­son who would not say any­thing that some­body would dis­agree with,” she said. “But I started to learn how to or­ga­nize my ar­gu­ments log­i­cally which helped me to raise my voice and form an opin­ion.”

Ques­tions and de­bates were what lib­er­ated her. Ruam­sap started to see that what she was taught in school was not the re­al­ity, and be­gan to ques­tion a his­tory that only praised kings and queens, ex­clud­ing ac­counts about the strug­gle for democ­racy.

She said her ex­pe­ri­ence as an ex­change stu­dent in the U.S. made her re­al­ize how “peo­ple were pro­duced.”

“When I was 16, I went to Amer­ica, and my home-stay mother was a de­vout Chris­tian. I was born and raised in a Bud­dhist fam­ily,” she said. Nearly 95 per­cent of the Thai pop­u­la­tion is Bud­dhist.

Ruam­sap told her home-stay mother that she would help out in the church com­mu­nity in other ways rather than at­tend ser­vices, such as teach­ing tod­dlers songs and rhymes at Sun­day school.

“While I was help­ing out, I saw how the church classes were di­vided into dif­fer­ent age groups. Sud­denly I could imag­ine how th­ese chil­dren would grow up and go to the next level to be­come a Chris­tian,” she said.

“It seemed th­ese chil­dren had no choice but to grow up as a Chris­tian, as I was raised to be­come a Bud­dhist,” she said. “It was sim­i­lar how peo­ple are pro­duced in society.”

Her per­spec­tive on hu­man rights also grew when she be­came a refugee.

“Back in Thai­land, I of­ten saw how Thais wanted to kill and get rid of the Ro­hingya refugees com­ing across the bor­der,” she said. For the past 10 months, Ruam­sap ex­pe­ri­enced the same look from Kore­ans when she told them she was an asy­lum seeker.

“We don’t want to flee the coun­try at all, if we had a choice. Our fam­ily, friends ... and ev­ery­thing we are born with are there. Refugees are forced by war, by pol­i­tics and by life-threat­en­ing dan­ger,” she said.

Hav­ing worked as an ac­tivist for women’s rights, democ­racy, and the poor, Ruam­sap said she would con­tinue such work in Korea.

“But my top pri­or­ity at the mo­ment is learn­ing Korean,” she said. “My friends say I have to learn Korean first be­fore I can join in and help out,” she added with a smile.

Chanok­nan Ruam­sap

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