In front of me is the once smart looking Jom Petpradab, aged 51, a journalist and former popular Thai television news host. He looks old and frail. Talking through Skype to someone back in Thailand, he forces himself to laugh out loud.
“Hey I am fine, you guys shouldn’t have any worry”, he says. Just right after ending the call, he sinks into his thoughts again, as the dark circle under his eyes grows wider. Jom hasn’t slept well for months and need pills to end each night. He admits his life is not free from worry and it is not “fine”. “Can’t close eyes without worry. I have a habit of too much worry since working around the clock in the country, it turned worst after what I’ve been through the last 6 months”.
There is lots to worry about, including family in Thailand who experience difficulty both physically and mentality since he left. A veteran journalist with 30 years experience both in Thailand and America, Jom left his family including his 2 nephews aged 11 and 14, and fled to Cambodia right after the Thai coup in May 2014. He then flew to America together with 7 other Thais: politicians and political activists. “I just wanted to take a short break to have time to think after being depressed over freedom of expression and sickened by coup after coup, so I went just to the neighboring country but later on was told to flee. I could be detained because I denied the junta’s summons”. To deny the summons he put the reason simply: “I have never agreed with nor supported the coup, so I just won’t go”.
This group are now waiting for asylum, while Jom is still working as a journalist on his own news website.
He left all assets and financial obligations to one of his friends with whom “I signed over every penny and pray I can trust”. His two nephews are to live under this financial arrangement. He then flew with a few baht which turned out to be useless in America. “I try to spend less cause I can’t be sure what would happen. I try not to take money from my nephews expenses, they need to study and my saving would help them through”.
Jom now lives with limited monthly assistance from those he claims are “democracy supporters”. Asked if it’s Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister, he laughs. “I’ve never met him nor have any contact or support from him, though people from the other side try to portray me as his money slave. If you happen to meet tell him I have many questions I think Thai people would like to ask”. He smiles bitterly.
His tourist visa will expire within a month. He is stressed, waiting, while vowing to fight, not return.
That same stress used to envelope Kritsuda Kunasaen, aged 28, a red-shirt activist who fled Thailand on 24 June 2014, after 29 days detained during which she says she was subjected to blindfolding, sexual harassment, beatings, suffocation till unconsciousness and then being put in a zipped plastic bag. She fled to Europe, has already applied for asylum, and stays in a government transit centre and waits for the official interview which is likely to come very soon. Kritsuda feels much relieved now. “Arriving 4 months ago I felt so depressed and overwhelmed with fear and anger, I couldn’t speak their language didn’t know what would happen and what life here would be. Now things become easy with lots of support from many people. I feel relieved, well adjusted and optimistic”.
Staying in the transit centre also convinced her that those from Thailand are not the most unfortunate. “I found people fled from their war torn countries in Africa and the Middle East. I felt sad for them, realized how bad is the situation they faced. I am not alone, not the only one who suffers. I have good support while most of them fled alone in desperation”.
Compared with many Thais in exile, Kritsuda is in good hands, helped by many people. Provided with the best lawyer and her application supported by political activists groups, and international organizations like the International Commission of Jurists, and others.
But to call her the fortunate one we have to think twice. “I barely sleep and hate to go to bed, once I close my eyes the torture would come again. I sense every thing so clearly. It’s too clear, never disappears and I don’t think it will. I am still cautious of strangers and walking sound makes me scared”.
Her boyfriend who faced the same torture, has endured what she calls a mental “collapse” and has difficulty mentioning the incident again. Kritsuda, also, vows to go on with her political activity, voice out what happened to the world and ask them to force a change. She would return to her home country but only once it has democracy. “And I’m sure we can do that very soon”.
But from the perspective of Jarupong Ruangsuwun, former Minister of Interior and leader of the defunct Phua Thai ruling party, that future may take longer to realise. “Many things need to be fixed. Something so huge that it needs time. I can’t say it will be soon. But it will be for sure. You and I will witness it together.” In his late sixties, together with his family, Jarupong fled weeks after the coup and now lives in America waiting for asylum status. He is on an arrest warrant for 3 charges and his assets have been seized by the junta. But he still can live on his own money supporting the family and some people he helped to come over.
Jarupong stays up till early morning before going to bed. He doesn’t have any problem with sleeping like the others but just wants to spend time chatting online. He has completely turned himself from solemn politician to internet geek. “I enjoy talking through LINE application. I think I owe them a lot and I’m now addicted , talk to many people and surf for tons of information. That’s fun and time flies”.
On 24 June this year Jarupong released a statement of the Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy (FTHD) vowing to fight back but later on said the urgent task would be just to expand the membership. His organization didn’t gain much attention from the red-shirt movement. Jarupong cited the fact that political movement and expression is strictly controlled within the country. So the members, which he claims number around 10,000, are mostly Thais living abroad.
He said he constantly talked to many international organizations, asking for support for the democratic campaign. “We will let the world know the truth and force for change. The world won’t tolerate the dictatorship, Thai people also are never willing to tolerate it but just can’t say it because guns were just at their heads. Guns that were bought by their sweat money.”
He was once close to Thaksin Shinawatra and his family but Jaturong says he’s never had any call from Thaksin and that he understands why. “The movement shouldn’t rely on any people, Thaksin in particular. Without Thaksin or any one once calling themselves the leader, the people can make it. People already had a lesson in this”.
Asked if he’s happy enough, he says with a laugh: “I feel my life is much better than many Thais who have to live under the junta, my former colleagues in the former government, in particular. They can’t speak nor move. I feel pity for them ”
But it will change, he strongly believes but can’t truly describe how. “You can’t suppress millions of people for a long time. Those who believe they can do that are stupid. They are in power now just because they carry guns and are so coward that never dare to put it down”. Jarupong is not the oldest Thai in exile I talked to.
Amara Avattanakul, who is 70 years old, is a Thai woman with US citizenship who has been living in America for over 30 years. She has retired from teaching in a community college and survived cancer twice. She is now living alone while her 2 daughters stay within reach. She’s already prepared to move back to her birth place where her declining health could be treated, while the military filed an arrest warrant 4 months ago .
“I don’t know how it happened, but I would grin and bear it: never regret in what I’ve done. What only upset me is that I had a plan of doing volunteer work in English teaching over there and I can’t do it now”.
Amara has been constantly involving in political movements since October 1976, also a strong supports for democracy movement both in Thailand and the US. She was under a junta arrest warrant after she went back to Thailand early this year and visited many political prisoners, giving money to many of them for their spending in prison, 1000-2000 baht each.
The military accused her as a financial supporter for red shirt movement. With her age and health Amara can’t let herself be arrested. She can’t go back and so her plan of living and volunteering in Thailand has faded. Gazing through the heavy winter snow she is a frail and quiet lady who is persona non grata back home.
Kannikar Petchkaew is a veteran Thai journalist who is now a Visiting Scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.