Opinion: An Open Letter to UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador

A promotional of Pu Praya as the goodwill ambassador of the UNHCR.

Dear Khun Pu Praya,

Before I get to the sensitive and complicated part of my letter, allow me to thank you for the years of tireless services in raising awareness and helping refugees around the world since 2017.

You are the first United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Goodwill Ambassador from Southeast Asia and many Thais are very proud of your dedication in raising awareness about the plight of refugees.

I and some Thais have been rather disappointed when last week upon being asked by netizens what you thought and could do about the case of abducted Thai political dissident Wanchalearm Satsaksit who sought refuge in Phnom Penh, you tried to avoid the issue.

“I promote peace and non political agendas this is highly political. It’s not my place to and not my fight. If you want me to fight for a broader issue I can like racism,” you responded on your instagram.

Later, you also added: “I am aware of the incident and personally I am sorry for what happened. The situation is highly sensitive and complicated…”

Then you instructed those who have more inquiries to contact the UNHCR Thai office by emailing at support.th@unhcr.org.

As we all know by now, when a colleague of mine at Khaosod English rang up the UNHCR Thai office to inquire, all we got was a “no comment” comment – saying that the UN refugee agency cannot comment on any of their cases.

That alone may be disappointing enough, but when compared to what former beauty queen Maria Poonlertlarp’s public thought, it made me wonder about whether you could have done more or be more principled about your stance.

Maria wrote on her social media about the alleged abduction of Wanchalearm that, “I may or may not stand with him, I don’t know enough to say, but I am standing together with Thai people demanding that what is happening is wrong and we want answers.”

I don’t know why Maria sounded more like a UNHCR goodwill ambassador than you. The truth is, many people are not asking you to take any political side. Wanchalearm may be a critic of the military junta led by Gen Prayut Chan-ocha who staged the May 2014 coup and thus end up being on the wanted list by the junta and decided to flee instead of reporting himself to the junta six years ago.

Wamchalearm may be a critic of the monarchy, posting on his Facebook account that he wants to see reform in the monarchy institution.

These are beside the point, however. People are not asking you to take side with a political dissident like Wanchalearm but people want you to stand for those who seek political refuge disregard of their political belief. It is here where you have failed and either failed or refused to recognize that many refugees are victims of political conflict and persecution.

If we do not acknowledge and confront this reality, it would be impossible to speak about and assist millions of refugees who fled political persecution, be it the Rohingya people who fled Myanmar to Thailand or Bangladesh, those who fled war in Syria and more. Or think about all the boat people during the Cold War in Indochina, many fled not just because of economic hardship but due to political persecution.

In the end, many are not asking you to take the political side but speak on behalf of the refugees who suffered and fled political prosecution and persecutioaround the world. Think about it, some like Wanchalearm who was abducted last Thursday did not even have an official status as a refugee thus he was even more vulnerable.

Let me remind you that the UNHCR itself cited the 1951 Refugee Convention in defining refugees on its website. It defined refugee as, “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-rounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Please note the word “political opinion” at the end of the definition.

Dear Khun Pu Praya, I truly hope the incident offered you some lessons and will enable you to reflect upon your role in assisting Thai political asylum seekers or the lack thereof.

I end this letter by noting that you used the words “highly sensitive” and “complicated” in describing the case of Wanchalearm. Perhaps you know a thing or two that others outside the UNHCR Thailand office do not.

The words suggest a climate of fear prevailing over you and it cannot bode well for Thailand, its political dissidents, asylum seekers and your work. But no matter what they are, please remember that your position as a UNHCR goodwill ambassador comes with a major responsibility and expectations.

Best regards,

Pravit Rojanaphruk 

PS. When I had the opportunity to chair an annual black-tie dinner for old students of two UK universities in Bangkok two years ago, I took an executive decision to deduct part of the dinner fees to donate 10,000 baht to the UNHCR Thai office, so I hope you treat this letter as coming from a supporter and not an enemy.