Disclaimer: The story written here is my personal opinion as one of the first wave of ‘refugees’ after the coup in 2014 who fled our homeland to an adjacent neighbouring country. This story may have an attitude, and comments, some positive and some negative, from one ordinary person who has no status in the struggle with the red shirt movement. I am not a political activist, just one citizen who was hit by a political storm and put in jail for 3 years, 3 months and 15 days on a charge under Article 112.
After the coup by NCPO government in May 2014, I and some of my friends involved in the political movement on the red shirt side made the decision that we had to flee Thailand to save our lives. At that time, we all had the intention to go to a third country from the beginning. We needed to go to a second country first. Only then could we think about how to go a third country.
After we successfully fled our home country to a new land (Country 2.0), it was like a weight lifted from our chest, a feeling of being reborn. For many weeks, we had to hide out of fear of being arrested and hunted down, so much that we couldn’t eat or sleep. Once we were out of Thailand, we could breathe easier.
At the time, news about our escape spread among those who faced the same fate as us. So the gathering of people fleeing death in Country 2.0 came about.
My group consisted of some of my friends who escaped together, and found another group (one of them is Ittipon ‘D.J. Sunho’ Sukpaen, who had come earlier). We decided to rent a place together and started advising each other from then on. We had no thoughts at all about staying in Country 2.0 because we all knew about the danger on our lives … because it was too close. At that time, we more or less decided each on our different destinations.
Political asylum seekers fled to neighbor country.
Our little sister Aum Neko had the aim of going to France.
D.J. Sunho, as far as I know, has a mother in Japan, but planned to seek refuge in the United States. Sunho was more prepared than others because he had his mother in a foreign country and relatives in the United States as an asset.
For me at that time, I was looking at two places: Canada, or if not, Australia, because I wasn’t worried about my English which is good enough for survival.
In conclusion, to go to a third country, for us the only way is filing a request with the UNHCR in Country 2.1!
The others were mostly ordinary villagers who “did not dare” think of seeking refuge anywhere. They were already very glad just to be able to run away from Thailand. But they would not refuse if they got support to go to a third country. They were ready to go with us. They said if we go, we go together.
Our daily lives at that time were mostly spent going back and forth to the internet café to contact our family, friends, and the big shots who might be able to help make it easy for us to get to a third country quickly. We would go out as a group and before bed, consult each other about the progress of each of us each day.
Among us, Aum, who aimed to go to France, seemed to have a chance to go first. Aum told us that she contacted someone in another neighbouring country (Country 2.1) and Aum got the green light before anybody. When Aum got confirmation to go to Country 2.1, we were all glad because everything seemed to go smoothly like we had expected. All of us congratulated Aum and waited for her success be the first one to travel to a third country.
It is generally known, especially regarding refugees, that in order to go to a third country, we must go Country 2.1 first because that country has a UNHCR office. Many people used this method. In fact, we tried to find other alternatives, but in the end, we settled on this one.
In conclusion, to go to a third country, for us the only way is filing a request with the UNHCR in Country 2.1!
After Aum got to Country 2.1 OK, we persisted in our wait for hope. But because waiting takes time and we had the burden of living expenses. Because we lived in a hotel on a daily basis, our money slowly began to run out. So we decided to pool our money to rent a house to stay in while waiting.
Then we got the first house. This house could accommodate a dozen people. We saved a lot of money. Once we got this house, many people started moving in including ‘an actor student’ and ‘a northeastern university student’ who shared our shelter, still waiting like us.
Soon after, the news was reported that Aum, that white-haired professor, and Acharn J., the former human rights commissioner, had obtained refugee status in France. This news made us feel very happy, because it took so many months that we almost lost hope.
After the news, the first to make a move was the group of Sunho, Tito, and the actor student, who invested time in sending documents through channels we thought possible.
But Tito was the first to take the decision to move from Country 2 to a third country, but in the end he failed. Tito bought a one-way ticket and was deported back while waiting for a connecting flight in Country 2.2 (getting ready to board the fight to the third country). He had to go back to Country 2.0 because he used up so much money. (About Tito, I was just a coordinator of some of it. The story might be partly incorrect, but not much. If it is wrong, I am sorry.)
Next was Sunho, who later on ended his role making underground radio programmes. He used a way that I had chosen earlier, which is to be a trader, make a honest living out of selling. I was very glad at that time because we could go back to talking just like before without advantage or conflict – just good intentions toward each other under our new status as traders, small businessmen of a similar kind. At that time, Sunho chose to sell jars of fermented fish. He made, packaged, and went around the villages selling the products himself and earned a lot of money.
Sunho had a chance to go to Country 2.1 to request refugee status (he had a good relationship with a big shot, who may have given him the green light and was able to travel easily). But without explanation, Sunho came back to Country 2.0. (It might be because waiting for refugee status in Country 2.1 takes a long time, so he decided to come back first to wait until the process was complete then go again. I came up with this myself.)
But who could have known that Sunho would never be able to go there again after coming back? Because not long after that, it was reported in the news that he had been disappeared. And he was the first to disappear from the history of our struggle.
Disappeared… and no coming back!
DJ. Sunho disappeared and no coming back.
"If you are not very well-connected, don’t even think or dream of going there!!"
The news about Sunho’s disappearance terrified many of us, especially those who were still active underground. At that time, those of us who had been staying in the same house, split in different directions. That was called the “house break-up.” As my friends knew, I decided to end my role in the campaign to set down a base, make a living, to make my family happy. Those who still wanted to remain active, we could not force them to do anything.
But as there was still activism, it caused trouble for most of us, because the big shots ordered us to stop, every time there was news about state officials from Thailand coming to the country where we were staying.
Those who were doing business at that time, with or without a shop front, were ordered to close by the big shots and hide for many days. Once the big shots thought it was safe, we were allowed to trade again.
When the business had been ordered closed many times, I and my friend (who has a wife who has been through both good and bad times with him), decided to make request for refugee status, because we could not bear a business that kept opening and closing.
Then, it was my turn to ask the big shots to request refugee status through Country 2.1. The answer was “there is no available accommodation” and there was financial support even enough to live in Country 2.0, which was very little. I thought that if we went, we still could not stay there because where could we get anything to eat while waiting for approval?
Travelling to Country 2.1 cost a lot of money - tens of thousands of baht, because we had to rent a car, hire a driver, hire a security guard and pay for other miscellaneous expenses. It also takes more than 10 hours. This is just to cross border to Country 2.1. Travel within Country 2.1 is an extra cost and who knows how much. And when we got there, how would we live, who would we stay with, and would there be anyone responsible for us and to support us? None of this was clear at all!
If you are not very well-connected, don’t even think or dream of going there!!
After I and my friend got the answer from the big shot in Country 2.1 refusing to guarantee accommodation for us, we felt we were at the end of the road for any more struggle, because what we had tried was the only way to get help to go to a third country. I was still pretty fine, because at that time I had a way to make a living (in fact, I did not think of going anywhere because I wanted to stay close to my child -waiting for the chance for my child and family to visit from time to time.) But my friend was very worried. In the end, we accepted it, gave up the fight to get to Country 2.1, and focussed on making a living in the belief that “if we don’t campaign, we will be safe to some degree.”
"Stop encouraging them to fight. If you truly love them, wouldn’t it be better to advocate getting them to a third country first?
And this is our idea and approach among the many who live here. Everybody can still live here peacefully until now. From the first step across the border from our homeland until now, a few months before 5th anniversary of our exile. Tens of us have overcome obstacles, good and bad times. Misunderstanding each other, arguing with each other, hating each other, not talking or supporting each other, this happens to a lot of us and many groups.
But believe me, no one is happy or grateful when losing a friend who has struggled through thick and thin with us!! The passing away of our friends who shared the same fate, from the first until now, hurts all of us. But in my opinion, it is all about “carelessness” which I do not want to talk about in detail, because of my respect for 5 friends of mine who passed away. (People here all know I what I mean.)
Personally, I think we can choose the best way for ourselves (it’s what I call “learning to survive”). In my case, I chose to end my activism, take a job, and make a living. Those who remain active should find a way to save themselves as much as possible with “precautions.” It’s just what it is.
But it is not an easy thing, fighting an extremely powerful dictator. So, the best way for the activist group, safer than staying in Country 2 is to seek asylum in a third country no matter what!
In the story above, I have given a summary about each of my friends requesting asylum in a third country from the information I have. It could be summarized again as follows.
We have not got support to seek asylum in a third country because I did not get support to go to Country 2.1.
Those of us who remain have no reputation, and have no one to support us to be considered even to stay in Country 2.1 to seek asylum. We have never had the chance.
We all came into Country 2 without evidence, without any documents, without any rights or you could say without even a presence in this land. A certain group here relies for its basic income on the big shots’ financial support, which is very little. Monthly house rent, food and other expenses, are nowhere near enough, let alone the expense of going somewhere else (but those who have a job, a business, in commerce or agriculture, tend to suffer less). So making a move to seek asylum has not been in our thoughts at all. Daily survival alone is already hard enough.
The story above explains why we can’t go to a third country. We have tried, but there is no “host.” With the power we have, we cannot really do anything, and we do not know either who can be a “host” for us. I have to leave this matter as a question for the big shots and the people who follow the news about us whether there is any way in which we can receive help.
This is the case especially for the group remaining active (6-7 lives). Now it is fairly clear that they are, I truly believe, in danger. Even if they decided to end their campaign now, it does not mean they will be safe from being hunted by their opponents!
The solution is not to find them a new home, change location from where they used to live to a new place, provide more financial support, or even weapons or someone to guard them.
Because that is solving the consequences. In the end if they are to stay here .. the chances are they will definitely make a mistake one day!!
Stop encouraging them to fight. If you truly love them, wouldn’t it be better to advocate getting them to a third country first?
About the writer: Thanthawut Taweewarodomkul is a former political prisoner accused of violating Article 112. After he served his sentence and after the coup, the NCPO issued a summons for Thanthawut to report, but he refused and went into exile ever since.