BANGKOK — Thai prison was hell for Nuttigar Woratunyawit. The freelance digital marketer was placed behind bars in 2016 when her contribution to a satirical Facebook page brought plainclothes security forces to her door and an irreversible turn to her life.
“The conditions inside the prison were terrible. It was dirty, full of germs and unsanitary. … Some prisoners take anti-depressants, some ram their heads against the wall. Others suffer from dementia. It’s like hell. But I couldn’t tell my mother because I didn’t want her to suffer.”
Nuttigar may not be a household name, but the 44-year-old was behind a popular Facebook page which mocked the dictator-prime minister. She became known as one of the “Facebook 8” after being abducted by the military and held for some time without charge.
What many of her associates do not know is that today she is a fugitive in exile in the United States, where time is running out on her bid for asylum.
“After I left, many were worried. I don’t want to hide the fact that I’m no longer in Thailand,” said Nuttigar, who had worked as a freelance digital marketer until months in jail and uncertainty in the justice system convinced her she was better off leaving her homeland.
“It’s not just about fear, but it affects everyone in Thailand,” she said. “And [for me], made it impossible to continue with life.”
In an interview, Nuttigar revisited the day in April 2016 when she was among those abducted in coordinated dawn raids at eight spots around the nation, a move she attributes to Prayuth’s inability to handle satire. The government accused them of being paid propagandists.
Breaking her silence five months after fleeing charges of sedition, defaming the monarchy and violating the Computer Crime Act, Nuttigar said she wanted to tell her story.
It was 6am on Wednesday, April 27, 2016, when 20-plus plainclothes soldiers and police raided the home where she lived with her mother.
Nuttigar said the men called her neighbors to come and see her being arrested to try and shame her. She said the only thing she and the others had done was dare mock Prayuth on Facebook.
Their arrest prompted a rare public protest at Bangkok’s Victory Monument that saw 16 people arrested.
Speaking by phone this week from somewhere on the West Coast of the United States, Nuttigar said fleeing was difficult – but better than prison.
Two days after being taken from her home in a hood to be interrogated and charged, Nuttigar was put in prison. But not before police and soldiers pressured her to hand over passwords to the “We Love Gen. Prayuth” page that lampooned Prayuth with memes and unflattering images manipulated in Photoshop.
“I didn’t think I had any choice,” she said.
They also wrote into her case that she likely knew Panthongtae Shinawatra, the son of junta political nemesis Thaksin Shinawatra, despite her repeated denials.
Nuttigar did not do well in prison. As the weeks turned to months behind bars without expectation of bail, she would tell her mother that she would commit suicide in protest rather than remain in prison indefinitely.
“She said if I died, she would die too,” said Nuttigar, describing her octogenarian mother as having lost much of her weight and mentally stressed by her imprisonment. Her late father was a mid-ranking police officer and her remaining family consisted of her mother and two brothers.
Nuttigar’s thinking eventually led her to make a difficult decision: She would flee.
When Nuttigar was granted bail after 71 days, she fully expected to be convicted by the military tribunal which would hear her case and spend 20 years behind bars. She then faced breaking the news to her mother.
“At least we can see each other’s faces through a lens instead of through prison bars,” she said, crying, of being so far from home.
It took awhile for her to follow through. But a year later, after gathering information and making plans, Nuttigar secured a new passport and tourist visa to the United States last year.
She asked the military court for permission to travel to Singapore. With a ticket getting her to Changi Airport, she then flew to Los Angeles, where she arrived Aug. 18.
It’s been nearly five months since Nuttigar quietly fled. Some activists have criticized her for jumping bail, saying it would make it more difficult for others to win temporary freedom or permission to travel abroad.
“I always wonder if I am selfish or not. But if I stayed in Thailand, I have a phobia about going to court. I felt depressed. I couldn’t continue with life. Anyone who has been imprisoned carries something in their hearts. … Those who had never faced the experience don’t know how severe it is.”
At present, Nuttigar works at a restaurant where she earns USD$14 an hour. Her six-month visa expires soon and she has few weeks left to be granted political asylum.
Although she wants to make things work, it’s not an outcome she ever wanted.
“It’s not easy deciding to leave for abroad, to leave the family behind,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll get a chance to return to Thailand in my lifetime.”