BANGKOK — An anti-government activist who fled Thailand in 2017 after she was charged with royal defamation said she’s gained political asylum in the United States government.
Nuttigar Woratunyawit, 47, said by phone Tuesday that her application for an asylum was granted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. Nuttigar, who’s now living in San Francisco, said she was delighted by the news, although her status effectively means she is now unable to return to her home country.
“I’ve been waiting for this for three years now, but by principle, I shouldn’t go back to Thailand at all. It’s written in the letter,” Nuttigar said.
Part of the letter she received from the Department of Homeland Security said: “WARNING: If you return to the country of claimed persecution, you may be questioned as to why you were able to return to the country of claimed persecution, and your asylum status may be terminated.”
Nuttigar was one of the eight Facebook users who were abducted from their homes by security officers in 2016 and prosecuted for running satirical Facebook pages that targeted PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, who seized power through a military coup in 2014.
For her roles in the satires, Nuttigar was charged with insulting the monarchy, violating the Computer Crime Act, sedition, among other offenses. She and seven other defendants were sent to stand trial under a military court. The most serious charge – lese majeste – carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail.
She spent 71 days in prison, which she described as a hellish experience, before the court granted her bail. Convinced that she could find no justice from a trial under the military tribunal, Nuttigar fled Thailand to the U.S. in late 2017.
Despite her distance, Nuttigar said she remains active in the pro-democracy cause for Thailand. Nuttigar said she’s formed a group of about 20 Thais in San Francisco to support and show solidarity with the student-led protests back home.
“Last year, when the young people were politically active, it gave me passion again,” said Nuttigar, who is now working at an online shopping company in San Francisco.
As for her private life, Nuttigar said she has been in a relationship with an American for three years now. She recalled that after their first meeting, the man didn’t know about her background until he googled her name. Search results lead to online articles that discussed Nuttigar’s past as a dissenter wanted by the Thai junta.
“At first he didn’t know anything about me,” Nuttigar said. “He was impressed. He admired what I did.”
She said her next goal would be to become a U.S. citizen and spend the rest of her life in the Land of the Free. Asked what advice she has for other dissidents in Thailand who are considering an asylum overseas, Nuttigar said they must prepare themselves for a very difficult decision.
“Fleeing for asylum isn’t traveling for sightseeing or studying abroad. It’s leaving the country that you were born in, and once you get out, you can never go back. It’s a one-way ticket,” Nuttigar said.
She continued, “You have to evaluate yourself whether you’re ready for it. No one can guarantee that your requests will be approved. No one can tell you what kind of a life you’ll have. Your life will begin at zero.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Nuttigar’s days in prison as 11. In fact, she spent 71 days in prison. We regret the error.