Person of the Year 2021: Worawan Sae-aung

Interviews by Yiamyut Sutthichaya and Rattanaporn Khamenkit
Article by Anna Lawattanatrakul

Worawan Sae-aung joining the 13 December 2021 march to Government House to protest against the Chana Industrial Project (Photo by Ginger Cat)

Meet Worawan Sae-aung, an elderly fruit vendor and regular protest-goer, known for her sharp tongue and for being on the frontline of almost every protest in the past year. The Prachatai editorial team has chosen Worawan as our 2021 Person of the Year for her courage in standing up against the authorities and her relentless support of the popular movement which has now grown to include a diversity of social issues, from constitutional amendments and monarchy reform to community rights and the right to bail.

Despite her reputation of being rude, young activists and protest observers, who call her “Auntie Pao,” know her as kind and courageous. For our 2021 Person of the Year report, we spoke to Worawan about why she continues to stand with young people in pro-democracy protests, as well as to young people who know her about the “Auntie” that they know beyond someone who throws curses at police officers. We also speak to academics who have studied the pro-democracy movement on the impact of people like Worawan on the movement.

Standing with young people

Worawan confronting police officers during the 14 November 2021 protest in front of the German Embassy in Bangkok

“I am democratic and part of the new generation,” Worawan said of herself when we met near Government House, where she was joining a protest by villagers from Na Bon District in Nakhon Si Thammarat against the construction of 2 biomass powerplant in their community. To her, being part of the new generation is not about one’s age but about being progressive.

Worawan said that she has been joining pro-democracy movements since the 1992 “Black May” protests and the 2008 – 2010 Red Shirt protests. She has been a regular at pro-democracy protests in 2020 – 2021 and said that people are joining protests not only for democracy but also because of the economic decline and reduced quality of life since the 2014 military coup.

She said that after the coup, the NCPO government closed several markets, including those at Khlong Lot and Tha Prachan, without compensating the vendors. When the Sai Tai Market opened, she tried renting a stall, but said that low sales combined with rent and travel costs means she was not able to earn money.

She said she found that the economy has been further worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, the effects of which are felt by the working class, and she was not able to make enough money to cover costs. The constant dispersal of protests by the police also means that she is not able to make money from setting up stalls at protests.

“When Covid-19 came, they didn’t close 7-Elevens. They didn’t close the malls, but they closed the small shops. Do you think that’s fair?” Worawan asked. “Why is our country not perfect? It’s because you’re not taking care of the poor.”

She also found that state welfare available to senior citizens is not enough. Currently, Thai citizens over 60 years old receive 600 baht per month from the government, but Worawan said that this is not enough even for day-to-day life.

“With 600 baht, it’s 20 baht per day. If one day I have to take a taxi or if one day I get sick, it’s not going to be enough because you have 20 baht per day, and what can I do with that? Each day, you have to spend at least 200 baht, right? And if you have to run errands or go places, a taxi ride would cost more than 100 baht. 300 for a round trip,” she said.

Worawan believes that every citizen should receive basic welfare and be cared for from birth without having to become a civil servant, because everyone pays taxes regardless of their occupation.

“People with rank have their welfare, but we only have 30 baht to see a doctor. It’s not close to the taxes we’ve been paying all our lives. Why do they not take care of the poor?” she asks.

For Worawan, amending the 2017 Constitution is necessary for the country to become fully democratic, which must be done before another election is held to break free of the existing power structure.

Worawan said that she thinks the use of violence against protesters, legal prosecutions, and the imprisonment of protest leaders is intended to cause fear among the protesters, but young people are not afraid, even though their parents are.

“Every parent loves their child and worries about their child. They’d tell their child, don’t do it or you’ll get arrested. This is how Thai people are, but they’re not thinking about what democracy is. It’s our right. It won’t end today. It won’t end this year. It won’t end with just our generation. It has to be us. We have to make everything better, right? We have to keep fighting until it ends,” Worawan said.

‘Auntie Pao’ in the eyes of the younger generation

Worawan washing tear gas out of her eyes while attending the 29 September 2021 protest at the Nang Loeng Intersection

67-year-old Worawan confronting police officers was a regular sight at pro-democracy protests in 2021, and many young protesters remember her for being direct, outspoken, or even rude, but in the eyes of younger activists, Worawan is known as a kind ‘aunty’ who cares for others, especially young people who are facing state violence, and as one of the powerless people who chose to stand up against power.

Student activist Wanwalee Thammasattaya said that the public does not see Worawan’s kinder side, as her image in the media often focusses on her throwing profanities at police officers, but Wanwalee knows her as a “Red Shirt auntie” who has been part of the popular movement for a long time, who has a lovely smile and makes her feel safe at protests.

For Wanwalee, the fact that Worawan still has to protest with young people shows that there is still something wrong with the government structure, or that not enough young people have taken to the streets, meaning that people in Worawan’s generation still have to come out to fight for what they demanded decades ago even though they deserve a rest.

Chumaporn Taengkliang

Gender equality activist Chumaporn Taengkliang said she first got to know Worawan after they were both arrested when police dispersed protesters occupying Chamai Maruchet bridge on 29 March 2021. She said that while they were detained with other women protesters, Worawan tried to lighten the mood in the room and led them in a yoga session, telling them that this is how she stays healthy. Chumaporn also found that Worawan is caring person and sees her as something of a mother figure.

“Whenever I meet Auntie Pao, if I ask her to curse Prayut (Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha) or the police, she can just immediately go off, but if I tell her ‘Can you give me a hug? I’m tired’, she will comfort me in a way that makes me feel like she is my mother, my aunt, an adult that I respect,” Chumaporn said.

Chanakarn Laosarakham

Meanwhile, iLaw photographer Chanakarn Laosarakham said that she initially thought Worawan was scary, but after interviewing and photographing her during protests, she found that Worawan is a kind and funny person who is always smiling for the camera and who likes to dance during protests.

“Auntie Pao is a representative of the older generation who connects with the younger generation, and she’ll become a story for the next generation of pro-democracy activists,” Chanakarn said.

Fighting with one’s body

Worawan is known for being one of the most outspoken participants at pro-democracy protests over the past two years, often confronting police officers and giving profanity-filled speeches. Worawan became popular after a footage of her slapping a police officer’s crotch during the 16 January 2021 protest at the Victory Monument went viral.

But perhaps one of Worawan’s most iconic actions during protests was when she completely stripped in front of a line of crowd control police at a protest on 28 September 2021 to protest the use of violence to disperse of the protest.

Worawan stripping in front of a line of crowd control police to protest the use of violence to disperse of the protest (Photo by Thikamporn Tamtiang)

“I thought I’d do it for the kids for once, because otherwise they’ll get hurt. ‘All I have is my pussy and my life, what do you want’, I said. ‘Fuck you, you’re harassing the people’, I told [the police],” Worawan said about stripping in front of the police line, which she said was worth it if it could distract the police from arresting or beating up protesters, and that she was not embarrassed.

“Are you not worried about them? One of their lives is worth just as much as ours. If they get beaten, they get hurt, because these guys won’t let them go, I’m afraid that would happen to the kids, and they’ll get charged, get arrested, even though we did nothing wrong,” she said. “We came out to protest, but you fuckers never gave us anything but tear gas and rubber bullets and water cannons. Do you think that’s right?”

For her behaviour during the 28 September 2021 protest, Worawan was charged with violation of the Emergency Decree and committing a shameful act by indecently exposing her person under Section 388 of the Thai Criminal Code.

Noraset Nanongtoom from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) who is responsible Worawan’s cases, said that Worawan stripping naked in front of the police line is one of the most peaceful ways of protest possible and should be protected as a constitutional right, instead of being treated as a crime. To him, it is not a shameful or sexual act, as it is her way of showing that the people are not armed and have nothing but their bodies, and the police must stop using violence against them.

Noraset said that Section 388 of the Thai Criminal Code does not say whether public nudity is a crime when committed by a man or a woman, or how much nudity is considered shameful, but he believes that law enforcement and the society’s understanding of the law leads to differences in how the law is used. He speculated that, if a man takes off his shirt to protest, he will not be charged, but if a woman does the same thing, she might be charged, which, to him, is not how the law should be enforced.

“If we are going to enforce the justice of the law, our humanity should be equal. It shouldn’t be that if one gender does it, and gets charged, but if another gender does it, it doesn’t get charged. That’s not how it should be,” he said.

iLaw photographer Chanakarn Laosarakham said this is her favourite picture of Worawan among those she has taken, and that it has been compared to Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People

Meanwhile, Wanwalee said that Worawan’s action reminds her of the Red Shirt protests, when protesters were often accused of carrying weapons. She said that the only thing that could prove to the state that protesters are unarmed is to strip naked, something which has also been done by Red Shirt protesters, but the society still sees nakedness as shameful. She also sees being naked as an exercise of bodily autonomy, and said that Worawan’s stripping does not violate anyone’s right.

“Since I was a child, there is a norm instilled in you to protect your purity, or teaches you the values that [women] must not do this. This is wrong. This is shameful. But one day, Auntie Pao destroyed all of those beliefs,” Wanwalee said.

Chumaporn said that Worawan’s actions raised awareness about nakedness as an act of protest and about the right to one’s own body. She also said that Worawan using her own body as a means of expression is something very feminist, since she does not yield to gender-based injustice and uses her own body to free herself from oppression.

“I feel that Auntie Pao has a very clear understanding of the right to our own bodies, so when she is going to strip, when she is going to spread her legs, when she is going to lift her skirt, she speaks about her body used to resist,” Chumaporn said.

Power of the powerless

For Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Worawan’s participation in the protest is a reflection of how different generations came together in the 2020 – 2021 pro-democracy movement and represents people who are not protest leaders but act on their own and have a very strong effect.

She is reminded of people like Hai Khanjanta, an old woman from Ubon Ratchathani who fought for the return of her lands which were submerged by the Huai Laha Dam but was never a leader of the anti-dam protests, or Charoen Wat-aksorn, who protested against the construction of a coal-fired power plant on public land in Prachuap Khiri Khan and was murdered in 2004.

“I think of people like these. Ordinary people who are not protest leaders and who act on an ordinary level, but they caused such strong ripples at a very high level in terms of their image in the media and as a force that makes the state itself do something,” she said.

Kanokrat Lertchoosakul

Kanokrat sees Worawan’s part in the current pro-democracy movement as a reflection of how former Red Shirt protesters are joining in with young people and working to support them. She observed that, in the early days of the 2020 – 2021 pro-democracy movement, former Red Shirt protesters were concerned that their presence would harm the student movement and were only supporting the protesters from afar.

But after the 16 October 2020 crackdown on the protest at Pathumwan intersection, Red Shirt protesters became more visible at pro-democracy protests, often setting up their own stage. From her research, Kanokrat found that young protesters felt supported by the presence of Red Shirt protesters, seeing them as one of the very few groups of adults who are on their side and felt thankful for these ‘uncles and aunties’ who stand with them.

“The existence of Red Shirt aunties and uncles or people like Auntie Pao is a very important force that makes young people feel like they have not been abandoned by adults in society. So if we are assessing whether Auntie Pao’s existence is beneficial to the young people’s movement, I have to say that she is not directly beneficial to their movement, but is a support both in terms of encouragement and in terms of support action, as a reserve, as a backup for young people, especially lately when the young people’s movement is getting tired and are taking a break” Kanokrat said.

Prajak Kongkirati

Meanwhile, Prajak Kongkirati, lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University, said that Worawan’s actions, including using nudity as an act of protest, is a classic nonviolent method, which would also expose the injustice committed by state officials against the people. He said that such actions may not change the authorities’ minds, but would change other people’s minds as they come to see how the state’s action is unjust.

“This is the most important thing. If all society can change their minds, it will be a lasting victory,” Prajak said.

Prajak sees Worawan’s presence as representative of the diversity within the pro-democracy movement and the space it gives for individuals to act on their own. He observed that the  mainstream media is no longer solely responsible for reporting the protests, as protesters are also creating their own media and giving exposure to people and issues they find important, which also makes it more difficult for the media to paint protesters as villains and legitimize the state’s use of violence.

Prajak also sees the popularity of Worawan’s profanity-filled speeches as representative of the people’s anger at state violence, which mean that many people feel that her speeches are relatable because they also feel the same way. He said that people may be rude, but they are rude because they are fed up with the state’s abuse of power, which is understandable considering the current lack of rule of law and the violence committed against the people.

“Of course, the people may be rude, but the profanities came from a long-standing frustration. I think that if you look at the speeches and separate each word from the context, you won’t get it. And you accuse people of being rude, or Auntie Pao of being rude, or ask why student leaders or young people are rude. You have to look at these words in their context, look at the power the state has used against the people since the 2014 coup and whether they have ever shown any respect to the people,” he said.

“Power has been used rudely for the past 7 – 8 years. The law has been distorted. State officials use their power without respect for the law or regulations. They fire rubber bullets if they want. They do whatever they want. There are no rules anymore. People using profanities, actually they have nothing to fight with. The people have no weapons in their hands. The most they can do is curse at you, but they have no rubber bullets, no tear gas. That’s all Auntie Pao can do, because she is frustrated, because there is nothing she can do.”

Worawan attending a protest on 3 October 2021 at the 14 October 1973 Memorial on Ratchadamnoen Avenue (Photo by Ginger Cat).

Kanokrat speculated that Worawan’s popularity could be because she is an ordinary person who come to protests and acts independently, and because she is unafraid and creative in a way that is similar to methods used by young protesters. Kanokrat also observed that Worawan’s profanity-filled speeches make her relatable to angry young people who feel that they have already tried to speak politely to adults but are not being listened to and must try other forms of language to get the media’s attention.

“What Auntie Pao does could be the kind of language she normally uses, but when she uses a tool like this in a public space, it creates a feeling of solidarity with young people. So new media see Auntie Pao as different from other adults,” Kanokrat said.

For Kanokrat, Worawan is one of the very few adults who still stand by young people during a time when it seems like the youth-led movement is losing momentum.

“In this light, I think that Auntie Pao being chosen as Person of the Year is not about Auntie Pao as an individual, but it is telling adults that this is an example of an adult who understands young people and is standing alongside them and trying to encourage them in the middle of their hopelessness,” Kanokrat said.

Prachatai's Person of the Year is chosen by votes from our editorial team. Other candidates for 2021 included:

1. Student activist Parit Chiwarak, for his leading role in the student-led protests and advocacy of monarchy reform. Parit is currently detained pending trial on royal defamation charges and is also known for going on a hunger strike earlier in 2021 to protest the denial of bail for detained activists.

2. The monarchy reform movement, as a popular movement consisting of not only activists but also ordinary people who have the courage to speak about a subject long considered taboo in Thailand and continue to stand for their cause despite legal prosecution and violence. 

3. Thalugaz, a group of protesters who gathered at the Din Daeng Intersection every night from August - November 2021, as an unprecedented movement in terms of their retaliation against violence from the police and the direction of their movement. At least 498 people have been arrested for joining the Din Daeng protests.

4. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, as a network of lawyers and activists which formed after the 2014 military coup to assist those whose right has been violated and continue to assist protesters who are being prosecuted for their political expression.

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