BANGKOK — An exiled political activist and award-winning writer who advocated his life for democracy died in France on Monday. He was 67.
Wat Wanlayangkoon, who became one of the most prominent pro-democracy novelists in Thailand, died of liver tumor and sepsis in France on Monday night local time after he was hospitalized last month. His death was announced online by his daughter Tuesday morning.
Wat was a prominent pro-democracy novelist, shaped by the Oct. 6 1976 massacre which imbued the rest of his life with a sense of political mission – to fight for an equitable society. He fled into the jungle after the massacre at Thammasat University to join the fight with the now-defunct Communist Party of Thailand.
After the party surrendered to government forces, he returned to the city and spent the subsequent decades penning novels. Best known among them was “Mon Rak Transistor” (Transistor Radio Love), a romantic story about an aspiring singer who was split up from his wife by military service. It was eventually made into a film in 2001.
Less romantic but equally memorable and idealized was Wat’s own political activism, which eventually saw him supporting the Redshirt movement and fled Thailand after the coup led by Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha in May 2014. Wat was wanted by the junta and accused of violating the draconian lese majeste law.
He spent over half a decade in exile in Laos, only to see fellow political exiles, namely Surachai Danwattananusorn, mysteriously disappeared. Two bodies surfaced on the Thai side of the Mekong River, with their abdomens stuffed with concrete in December 2018. They were identified as aides of Surachai, a staunch republican, but Surachai’s fate remains unknown until today.
Realizing imminent danger, he decided to apply for political asylum and left for France two years ago in May 2019.
A native of Lopburi province, Wat abandoned his study at Ramkhamhaeng University after two months to become a journalist in 1974 before eventually turning into a writer, communist rebel, and political activist. Wat said in a 2020 interview with The 101 that he really enjoyed living in France and dreamed of Thailand to become a welfare state.
“What I couldn’t tolerate is the political and governing systems [in Thailand]. I didn’t want to be in exile, and I believe no one wanted to be this far away in exile. But in the end, I had to make the decision because everyone close to me was being hunted and killed,” he said, adding that Thailand is a parochial society akin to a frog being in a coconut shell.
“Some like Siam Teerawut was brutally murdered. What happened made me feel I can’t stay on [in Laos]. I felt ill, depressed, only drinking white liquor and lost my appetite … I have been in France for over a year now and my health has improved, both physically and mentally.”
On a personal note, I met Wat in early 2014 when I was invited to speak at a public forum. Wat was always ready and generous in praise and encouraged young people to keep fighting for a just and equitable Thai society.
One last work left by Wat was a memoir of his seven years in exile. It was submitted to a publisher at the end of last year, but was yet to be published at the time of his death.