UNHCR Presenter’s Ties to Junta Spark Uproar

Sinjai Hongthai poses for a selfie with junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha on March 1, 2019. Image: noksinjai / Instagram

BANGKOK — The United Nations refugee agency’s office in Thailand said Tuesday that it’s discussing the criticism leveled against an apparent representative who welcomed the junta’s coup in 2014.

Two days after longtime actress Sinjai Hongthai appeared on TV to call for donations on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a representative of the agency said it’s aware of the backlash but added that it has yet to make a decision on the matter.

“We are talking about it,” Duangmon Sujatanond, a public relations officer at UNHCR Thailand, said by phone. “Allow us to observe the situation a little more.”

During the season finale of the reality TV modeling show The Face, which aired live on Saturday, Sinjai appeared onstage to urge viewers to donate to the UNHCR and help those displaced from their homes.

UNHCR Thailand later posted a video of the segment on its official Facebook page.

But her plea for action soon raised the ire of junta critics, who took offense at Sinjai’s role in a 2014 street protest that culminated in a military coup in May that year. Sinjai has spoken out in support of coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha on several occasions; the latest was in early March when she wrote online, “Go all the way with Uncle Tuu.”

Anti-junta activist Chanoknan Ruamsap, who is now an asylum seeker in South Korea, said Sinjai’s endorsement for the UNHCR was insult to her injury.

“As a refugee, I can say that I am angry… to see someone who causes others to become refugees speak proudly that she feels sorry and sympathetic to asylum seekers,” Chanoknan wrote on her Facebook Monday. “I feel really bitter listening to it.”

Chanoknan fled Thailand in late 2017 after she learned police intended to pursue charges of royal defamation against her for sharing a critical biography of King Vajiralongkorn produced by BBC. She’s among political exiles who have left Thailand for fear of their safety in the wake of the 2014 coup.

Responding to the criticism, Sinjai herself insisted she was not officially representing the UNHCR when she made the speech on Saturday.

“I didn’t speak in any [official] capacity as the criticism alleges. Use your brain! #VeryPuzzled,” the actress wrote on Instagram.

Calls to her phone went unanswered as of press time.

But anti-junta activist Chotisak Onsoong said he didn’t buy Sinjai’s explanation because he believes the speech was a coordinated campaign with the UNHCR.

“The UNHCR shouldn’t have chosen such a problematic person to speak on its behalf,” Chotisak said.

Other opponents of the junta flooded the UNHCR’s social media platforms with complaints over Sinjai’s involvement with the agency. Some went as far as to threaten to cancel their donations, though it was impossible to identify which were actual donors.

“I called UNHCR Thailand at 020560000 to cancel my monthly donation. The officer politely replied I have no donation account!” Facebook user Peerapong Pruttipongkul wrote in jest.

However, not every dissident thought it was productive to cancel donations to the UNHCR over a political spat. Anti-junta campaigner Sombat Boonngam-anong wrote on Facebook Monday that the UNHCR is doing is doing a “very important” job in helping refugees worldwide.

“Millions are facing hardship,” Sombat said. “We cannot use the mistakes committed by some officers of the organization as a reason to stop supporting fellow human beings. It’s not justifiable.”

Additional reporting Teeranai Charuvastra