BANGKOK — In the end, it was the threat of prosecution and a flight into long exile that melted longstanding tensions between pro-democracy activist Chanoknan Ruamsap and her parents.
Both mother and father are Yellowshirt royalists, but Chanoknan, who staunchly opposes the lese majeste law and is critical of the monarchy, said none of that mattered when they separated earlier this month within hours of her learning she would be prosecuted for royal defamation.
“That’s how it was. When we were about to depart, there was something more important. We all cried,” she said by phone Monday, describing the five hours that passed between receiving a police summons and departing her homeland.
In the end, the three cried as the 24-year-old activist boarded a flight to another East Asian city – she spoke on condition it not be revealed – nearly two weeks ago on Jan. 16. That day she entered an exile likely to last 15 years, as is the length of the statute of limitations of the draconian law that could see her jailed up to 15 years if convicted.
In the nearly two weeks that have passed, Chanokwan said she’s still at the beginning of a long and arduous application process for asylum. If granted, she would be the first Thai there to gain such status. Her local lawyer assures her, she said, that the case is strong as she has a strong record of opposing the military junta and the fact that the article that got her into trouble with the law was a professional biography of King Rama X written by the BBC Thai-language service.
A human rights activist based there told Khaosod English under the condition of anonymity that the process is a long and difficult one that has taken as long as 13 years to be completed.
Chanoknan, who knows someone there, said she’s set to make the country her new home. But she fell into a depression on arrival that lasted several days and progressed into taking ill.
But money is tight.
“It’s cold – very cold,” she said of the sub-zero temperatures there. “I fell ill until just a few days after I arrived. But I can’t see the doctor. I’m not insured and it’s very expensive. Emotionally it was also terrible at the beginning.”
In addition to foregoing the doctor, she has since moved out of the city for more affordable accommodations.
No Turning Back
The former spokeswoman for the now-defunct New Democracy Movement and a leader in its successor, the Democracy Restoration Group, said she understands that fleeing means being unable to return home for the next 15 years.
In the first week of December 2016, Chanoknan was attending a training course in Brazil when she learned about the arrest of fellow pro-democracy activist Jatupat Boonpattaraksa, aka Pai Dao Din. Jatupat was arrested for sharing a Facebook post about the BBC-produced biography of the new king. In response, Chanoknan shared the same article on Facebook in protest. She shared it with the message, “If the BBC dares to write, I dare to share.”
Nearly 3,000 other people also shared the article on Facebook.
The next thing she knew, her parents were contacting her from Bangkok, saying soldiers had visited their home telling them how upset they were about it and asking her to remove the post. She refused.
The Chulalongkorn University graduate said on the phone that she has no regret about removing the post which, over a year later, resulted in her becoming a fugitive.
She said talking about the monarchy is her natural prerogative and something she should not be jailed for. She bristles at those who now tell her she should have backed down.
“Some have told me, ‘You saw what happened [to Jatupat]. See, I told you. Why should you cry then?” she said.
Chanoknan said she’s most disturbed hearing this from those who identify as human rights defenders and political activists.
“They should support freedom of expression and not censorship,” she said. “I am true to the notion of human rights defenders. If we light a fire, we shouldn’t extinguish it ourselves.”
She noted that more than 2,900 other people shared the same biography and have not been arrested.
Chanoknan said she knew staying meant at least two and a half years in prison if she confessed as Jatupat did following months of confinement. It would likely be five years if she refused to confess. Royal defamation is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
She chose escape.
“It’s wasn’t difficult to take 30 minutes to decide. It’s much more difficult coming to terms with it afterward. To accept that I had to leave home, leave the home where I grew up for good.”
Rangsiman Rome, a colleague in political activism, called Chanoknan, who led from the front in many street protests since the 2014 coup, a “very stubborn” person.
Rangsiman said her departure is a loss for Thai democracy but added that he understands her motivation because many have given up hope for justice when it comes to lese majeste cases, which have ramped up since the military seized power and are criticized as being more about suppressing dissent than protecting the royal family.
He questions why the only two of thousands to be prosecuted also happened to be critics of military rule.
“Why were others who shared not prosecuted? Why has nothing happened to the BBC? Not that I support any prosecution,” Rangsiman said.
Beside her parents, Chanoknan rang up two or three close friends to inform them that she had been charged with insulting the monarchy. Those friends quickly came to her Bangkok home to see her one last time in Thailand.
“Mostly I told them I loved them, and added that if they want to see me back here, they would have to help abolish the law,” Chanoknan said, adding that she only managed to pack a few items before she fled, including some clothes, toiletries, her computer and a favorite signature red tote bag by Michael Kors.
Her parents withdrew a wad of cash and handed it to her, but Chanoknan said that from now on, she wants to stand on own her feet in exile. That’s why Chanoknan said she looked for a cheaper place to stay, to build a life while remaining engaged in political activism.