BANGKOK — After finishing morning classes, the elfin Thammasat University student strolls over to people-watch on Khaosan Road. Chatting about politics and literature and activism, he blurts out that each of the three times he’s watched “Les Miserables,” he cried.
For Karn Pongpraphapan, the romantic idealism that helped propel him to the fore of the pro-democracy movement has roots in drama. Considering his allies, he sees Jean Valjean in his troupe’s leader, the square-jawed Rangsiman Rome. The steely but tender Nuttaa Mahattana is most like Marius.
“Is there someone that’s LGBT among the activist characters?” the fourth-year student activist said. “If there is, I’d be one of them.”
When protests rekindled earlier this year, Karn emerged as the newest face of the Democracy Restoration Group, inviting scrutiny from the public – and authorities. He’s garnered public attention almost as quickly as he’s drawn criminal prosecution for helping to lead a pro-democracy march.
On April 9, he turned himself in to police after being charged with violating the public assembly law. He was quickly released.
The 24-year old first stood in front of crowds of yelling protesters and grim police on Feb. 10, when he and others assembled at the Democracy Monument to demand elections.
“I ran on pure instinct and public speaking skills,” he said.
As an openly gay man, Karn brings inclusivity bonafides to the homogeneous movement leadership as a forceful voice for democracy, if one unlikely to shatter stereotypes about young, self-absorbed idealists questing to save the world.
Karn really hit full stride late last month, when he helped lead several hundred on a march from Thammasat University to army headquarters to call on the military to stop supporting the ruling junta. For that March 24 rally, he was charged along with 56 others with violating the public assembly ban.
“I will continue to fight, whether it’s my third, fourth, or fifth charge,” he said of the charge, his first. “I will keep on fighting. I’ve come this far. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Criminal complaints come with the territory – Rangsiman, Nuttaa and others have racked up a long list of charges over the years, though none has seen serious jail time.
Karn’s political awakening, like that of many of his millennial cohorts, came with 2013’s rise of the anti-government People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State, or PCAD, which also branded itself the People’s Democratic Reform Committee.
PCAD protesters blockaded parts of Bangkok in 2013 and barred people from reaching polling stations in a 2014 general election. Their protests set the stage for the coup by today’s junta. Most protesters at the time wrapped themselves in the colors of the flag and filled streets with the sound of blowing whistles.
“It wasn’t right that they came out whistling for no elections. They weren’t playing by the rules,” Karn said. “That was the first year I was old enough to vote, and they took away my right.”
Karn came to the conclusion that he had to speak out against military rule. He cited economic conditions under its administration, especially for people invisible to most Bangkokians.
“Don’t you know how bad the economy is?” the student who often goes on volunteer trips to the countryside said. “I’ve met rubber farmers who slit their own throats out of poverty. Meanwhile, Bangkok kids like me get to ride in air conditioned cars to take English lessons at Catholic schools.”
Karn said he could go on “100 volunteer trips” and see no real change as long as the junta is in power. He said mutual friends introduced him to protest leaders Rangsiman and Ja New in August.
He soon became fixed on what he said is his ultimate goal as an activist:
“Elections. And Gen. Prayuth must resign. It’s enough. It’s going onto the fourth, fifth year of this dictatorship. People have been afraid of freedom of expression for far too long.”
An Activist is Born
Karn’s public debut was the Feb. 10 rally where Rangsiman introduced him as the cheerful host to address the dozens gathered. Then came March 24, when Karn took a more central role leading several hundred to army HQ from the back of a truck.
Pipat Waattanapanit, 28, an amateur fiction writer who follows the cause, said although he agrees with Karn’s liberal activist gusto and bravery in coming out to protest, the student still has a lot to learn about balancing his public, private and online lives.
“To be an activist you really have to have a good political performance. You can’t just be yourself completely when you’re an activist,” Pipat said. “You need to know where the activist stops and you begin. Otherwise it’s like being stuck in a role you play. It might be hard for him because he’s young.”
Karn says he’s aware that he still needs to learn.
During last month’s march on army headquarters he admits being “a bit embarrassed” by some of his antics, such as exhorting protesters to “cover your ears and scream” if the police were to fire up loudspeakers to disperse the crowd.
“I learned a lesson, so I’ll try to keep my emotions in check in the future,” he said. “I’m still learning. Before you can manage others, you need to manage yourself.”
Identity and Politics
Karn’s sassy, catty style – “let’s clap for the police for keeping us so safe!” – is a welcome break from the baritone gravitas of Rangsiman and Sirawith Seritiwat, or even the calm-yet-shrill Nuttaa.
“I can be like a man, making a deep stern voice, or I can be like a woman, showing my sweetness, cheerfulness and friendliness,” Karn said. “It’s my special talent.”
He denies being camp or playing the “colorful gay” role; instead, he sees himself adding some much-needed charm.
“I’m completely myself. I don’t put on a character. This movement needed some color, someone toot and gay who jokes,” he said, using the Thai word for a stereotypically effeminate gay man. “I’m a funny, approachable person anyway.”
After getting his hair curled at a salon near his campus on a recent afternoon, a woman selling smoothies called out to him – she was among last month’s protesters – and insisted on giving him a free banana shake. She said she’ll be there for the next protest planned for May 5.
He said others in the movement – mostly middle-aged men and women from the country – embrace his sexual identity, even calling him “daughter.”
“Oh, they adore me. They hug me and call me pretty,” he said. “My childlikeness and femininity makes the aunties so caring of me.”
Karn, the only out LGBT member of his activist group, hopes to inspire more LGBT Thais to be concerned about an equal and democratic society, which hasn’t always been the case, as when large numbers of LGBT youth sided with the anti-government protesters who helped unseat the elected government and set the stage for the 2014 coup.
“Those LGBT that marched with the [PCAD] joined because it operated on the basis of being ‘good people.’ That is, you had to be a ‘good person’ to join,” he said. “But in a democracy, you don’t have to be a ‘good person’ or even a talented one to claim your rights.”
Pipat, who also identifies as LGBT, is glad to have Karn on the activist scene.
“He’s not a representative for LGBTs, but he is an LGBT activist. Although he’s not the first, since there’s others like Ajarn Kath at Thammasat University, it’s still good that he announced himself publicly as one.”
Pushed Around, Pushing Back
Karn said his penchant for rebelling against all forms of authoritarianism sprang from his personal life, pushing back against his father’s corporal punishment and later leaving Silpakorn University’s archaeology program after two years due to its hazing culture.
“I read Voltaire, Foucault, Marx, and it made me see that what the seniors were doing to the juniors was dictatorial,” he said.
Yet even after he moved to Thammasat University, with its reputation for progressiveness, Karn said he encountered backward professors.
Some charged students 19 baht a minute if they came late, he said. But the last straw was on one fateful exam day when he showed up in gray pants. A professor told him to change into regulation black pants, so Karn borrowed some from a friend. The professor, however, wasn’t satisfied.
“He told me that these pants were cut in a jeans pattern, but I should be wearing pants cut in a slacks pattern. I got so mad, I yelled, ‘Is your dad a tailor?’ so loud that the whole university could hear me,” Karn said, visibly agitated. “If I couldn’t take the exam, then my mom would have to pay another whole year of tuition because of something so stupid.”
Other staff allowed Karn to take the exam, and he passed the class. He will graduate from Thammasat’s College of Innovation next month.
“Fuck! This isn’t correct, this is barbaric! Pridi didn’t want this,” he said of his reaction, referring to university founder Pridi Banomyong.
Love Not Fear
Karn wants young people, particularly those 17 to 24 who may have never voted, to “overcome your fears and join our protests. It’s useless to protest on your Facebook status.”
If elections happen, Karn says he will vote for “politicians with potential,” but said he’s not ready to endorse anyone or disclose his intentions. Despite his bitterness at the dictatorship, Karn effusively waxes about love as the defining power in society.
“I want to transform this Kingdom of Fear into a Kingdom of Love,” he said. “I want to live in a society of love and empathy, not fear.”