Who is Siam Theerawut? From exile to Vietnam to whereabouts unknown

Siam Theerawut’s name appeared in the news on 9 May, after Piangdin Rakthai, a political refugee, said on YouTube that Siam and a famous underground radio host known as “Uncle Sanam Luang,” along with one other companion had been arrested in Vietnam and sent back to Thailand on 8 May.

Siam Theerawut at a 1932 revolution memorial day event at the memorial plaque, 24 June 2012

There are now concerns that these Thai refugees have disappeared, because there have already been cases of refugees disappearing and found dead. At least two people disappeared in 2016 and 2017, and at least two others were brutally murdered. Their bodies were found in the Mekhong River. Another missing person is Surachai Saedan, who has yet to be found.

“I just want to know if he is safe, and where he is,” Kanya Theerawut, Siam’s mother, said.

She has been going around handing letters to various agencies, requesting them to investigate the matter. Both the police and the military have denied the arrest, but the family is still worried, as the news reports gave a very specific time and date, and there were pictures of the fake passports with the three activists’ pictures. And most importantly, as they have done for the past five years, military officers may hold anyone in custody in a military camp without allowing them any contact with the outside world for seven days. Today, this order still has the force of law.

Kanya Theerawut at the Embassy of Vietnam in Bangkok, where she went to file a letter requesting information on her son's alleged arrest and extradition, 12 May 2019

“Only by publicly affirming that these three activists are in detention and in contact with their relatives and legal counsel will the authorities put to rest the fear that these men have been forcibly disappeared,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director.

Siam is not a public figure. He is not well-known. He is only a young man, a graduate of Ramkhamhaeng University, who had to flee the country at the age of 29, after the 2014 military coup, when every Article 112-related case was brought back.

The origin of the charges against him was “The Wolf Bride,” a period comedy play which caused displeasure among some groups of people, who then filed a lawsuit under Article 112 in 2013. Those involved with the staging of the play, such as Pornthip Mankhong and Patiwat Saraiyaem, 25, were arrested and spent two years in prison.

Siam with his family at his graduation in 2013 (Source: Thanissorn Maneerak)

If we go back further, we will find that Siam is from Krathum Baen, Samut Sakhon. He worked with his family, who run a business installing air conditioners. At the same time, he enrolled at the Faculty of Political Science, Ramkhamhaeng University.

Siam’s younger sister said that he loves reading. He read a lot of political and history books, and often passed them on to her. Publications by Same Sky Books seem to be influential to his thinking. Other than that, he is particularly interested in Cambodian history and culture. His family said that he has a lot of books in Khmer, which he taught himself by watching YouTube videos, and he also bought a large Khmer dictionary to carry with him.

“Lakhon Basak: the best Khmer opera from Cochin China”

“Lakhon Yike: Cambodia’s musical theatre heritage”

“Chapei dong veng: the legacy of Cambodia’s musical culture”

“The splendour of King Sihanouk’s royal cremation ceremony”

“King Norodom Sihanouk: Cambodia’s national artist”

“Krom Ngoy: immortal Khmer poet”

etc.

These are the titles of the articles Siam wrote on his Blogazine, in the column “Jumreabsur: easy Khmer art in my style.” He describes his blog as

“Jumreabsur is a Khmer greeting, used for someone older than the speaker, or for a general person whose age you don’t know. This is different from “sua sday” which is a greeting for a person younger or equal in age to the speaker.

“Because of this, naming my blog “jumreabsur” means that this is a greeting for the general reader with the highest honour I can give, because I think that the highest honour of creating a work is the kindness I receive from every person who reads my work, no matter who you are.”

His thick glasses, his polite demeanour, the way he talks with his flat, monotone voice – these are how you know it’s him.

Kengkij Kitirianglarp, a lecturer at the Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, Chiang Mai University, who was once a member of the activist group Prakaifire and met Siam while participating in group activities, said that Siam is very polite and knowledgeable, especially about Cambodia, which he seems interested in to the point of obsession. Siam met members of the Prakaifire group when he was a student at Ramkhamhaeng a few years ago. Because he did not have many friends he could talk to and exchange his knowledge with, he wanted to join the group and join in their activities.

Siam at a demonstration against violence in the Thai-Cambodian border, early 2011

The Prakaifire group was founded around 2008 by enthusiastic young people who met previously as student activists, protesting against granting universities autonomy, against the war in Iraq, or other causes. After the 2006 military coup, these young people protested against the coup, despite many of them having joined the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but they broke with the PAD when it started to demand that Thaksin be replaced by a new Prime Minister appointed by the King, as allowed by Article 7 of the Constitution.

Kengkij said that other than protesting against the military coups, the Prakaifire group mostly worked with workers. These young people organized study groups with factory workers to help them understand their rights and how to negotiate with employers. They campaigned in support of state welfare. When the Triumph Factory laid off 1900 workers, the Prakaifire played a major role in the campaign which sparked a long protest at the Ministry of Labour.

Sriprai Nonsee, who has been a workers’ rights activist since she was 18 and working in a sewing factory, and who has campaigned for a welfare system, posted on her Facebook page about Siam:

“Siam was one of the students that helped me with the workers’ study group and with the exchange talks between workers and students. He is a nice man who helped out with every event. He went everywhere where the workers were holding events, no matter how far or hard the journey was. He even went to the funeral of workers he didn’t know. The latest was Tula’s funeral, around Om Noi. We were parted suddenly because he had to seek asylum, but I am still hoping that one day we’ll see each other again. Yesterday, I saw on the news that he was arrested and sent back to Thailand, but the Thai authorities deny everything. I can’t sleep because of what happened, and I think I can’t just do nothing, and wait around without knowing when I’ll hear that he’s safe. I’m saying here and now that I won’t let my beloved little brother disappear like this. There’s no way I’ll ever let that happen.”

During Prakaifire’s journey of activism, some members who are skilled in theatre separated from the group in order to focus on art and culture work, since they see theatre as a tool the working class can use to spread ideas. Kengkij said that Siam and this group of friends started travelling around staging workshops on easy ways to make plays for different workers’ unions.

Siam (right) in one of the productions he was a part of.

A friend in the theatre group said that he met Siam at various seminars around 2009. Siam was an upperclassman who had yet to graduate and a fan of the Students Federation of Thailand, so he invited him to join the group.

In 2010, Siam and the group often observed the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protests at the time.

“Everyone believed Siam was Special Branch. He likes to ask a lot of questions. He didn’t go to the protests because he wanted to fight in the UDD’s way or anything like that, but he likes knowing people. He likes knowing the commoners. He wanted to know how they got there, which type of vehicle they came in, how long have they had been here, how many they were, who was taking care of the house while they were at the protest, how is their dog was being taken care of. He asked that much. He’s so sensitive with other human beings, and he was happy that he got to come back and tell his friends about it, because we were too lazy to go. It was too hot.”

“He doesn’t have a lot of self-confidence. He’s not confident in his own ability, even when he is really very capable. He’s a real linguistic genius. We used to wonder why khanom chin is called khanom chin, and we were betting on whether Siam would know. When we called him, he really did know why it’s called khanom chin, and he gave us a long explanation of the etymology. And he knows a lot about Thai classical music. He listens to Thai classical music.”

As for Siam’s first step into the world of theatre, it was because he was forced.

“We didn’t have enough actors, so we made him join, and we thought that acting would help with his confidence in expressing himself and interacting with others, and he did well.”

Siam (center) in another production

“He had no radical thoughts at the time. He’s very compromising, friendly, honest, and timid. When people got arrested because they were in a play, his friends were most worried about him because he was not ready at all for prison. He was not ready to face that much evil. We were worried that he’d get beaten up, that he’d die in jail,” Siam’s friend said.

As for the news about Siam this time, Kengkij said that he is very sad.

“I feel sad about many things, not just about Siam. Many people I know have had to run away, or are in jail. There are people of many generations who are facing the same fate. If we look at Siam’s case, he was not at all radical when I met him. He was just someone who is interested in social issues, who wants to learn, to discuss, who wants society to get better. But the situation with the dictatorship has driven a lot of people to leave. They’re not a danger to society, but the atmosphere makes them dangerous. They didn’t want to leave the country, but they can’t stay because they have to face an unfair law. The pain and hardship they face make them more critical of the system, at least more than we are.”

“We should rather question what kind of social conditions make so many capable people end up in jail or having to flee the country. It’s a complete destruction of coexistence,” said Kengkij.

This coming week, Siam’s family will still be searching for their son and brother, with only the hope that Siam and the others are still safe and will face a normal trial.

Regarding the situation between Thailand and Vietnam related to the expulsion of political refugees, on 25 March 2019, Amnesty International headquarters in London, United Kingdom, issued another statement calling for the Thai and Vietnamese authorities to give a direct explanation of the disappearance of a Vietnamese journalist in Thailand, after reports that Truong Duy Nhat, a Radio Free Asia host, disappeared on 26 January after he travelled to Bangkok to apply for asylum with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).