On the afternoon of May 22nd, 2014, fearing for her life, Aum Neko, quickly packed her things and fled her home country of Thailand. Neko is one of just a few democracy activists out of thousands summoned who took the grave risk of refusing to report herself to the military backed coup that swept through Bangkok almost a year and a half ago. Just 22, Neko now lives in Paris, and is one of many Thai human rights activists that have been chased into exile for voicing their opposition to successive military coups in recent years. In her opinion, she had no choice. “They would have likely brought me to the male jail, and since I am transgender, this would have been a very dangerous situation, as there are no protections for transgender,” Neko said. “There’s a lot of sexual violence against transgender in the jail for males.”
Back in Thailand, the world has barely noticed, but the military junta continues to rule the country through fear, manipulation, and severe repression. The government has banned any type of organized rallies, political campaigning, quashed freedom of expression, and drastically rolled back electoral rights.
Western democracies have remained largely quiet on the issue, doing little to put any real pressure on the current Thai government to bring back democracy. Over the last 18 months, dozens of activists and journalists speaking out against the current leadership have been threatened and detained, some receiving long prison sentences. The military junta has decimated any trace of free speech in what was once South East Asia’s most promising democracy. And the situation is only getting worse. Just recently, the government rejected a draft constitution that would have set a time – in the near term – to move the country back toward democratic rule. Now the junta will remain in power for the foreseeable future. As one of region’s most important economies continues to sink into a recession under the current military dictatorship, the continual delay of democratic process in Thailand is setting a dangerous precedent for civil liberties and human rights in the rest of South East Asia. Marshal law remains in place, and a growing number of Thai citizens are being arrested for “lese majeste” or insulting the Thai monarchy. One Thai citizen recently received an unprecedented sentence of 30 years for criticizing the King on Facebook. Another mentally ill man was sentenced to five years for speaking out publicly against the King. Most recently, a bathroom custodian was sentenced to over three years in prison for anti-monarchy graffiti scrawled inside of a toilet stall.
There is no clear count, but Human Rights Watch and exile organizers estimate that thousands have fled the country in the last decade because of repeated coups – many of them exile activists now living in safe houses in neighboring Cambodia and Laos. Dozens of other exiles are scattered throughout Japan, Europe, the United States, and other parts of South East Asia.
While the coup has been debilitating for personal freedoms in Thailand and economic development, it has also quietly inspired a united front of Thai exiles across continents; a common rage fueled by the Thai military’s repeated assaults on democracy. Most of these exiles fled after Thailand’s summer coup, which has heralded the most extreme rollbacks of civil liberties of any coup in Thailand’s modern history. Many Thai exiles have already been charged with crimes related to their activism, and face prison sentences of 15-years or more if they return.
Our documentary film, “Thais in Exile,” will be filmed, produced and written by Thai exiles that have no longer desire to return home to their country and families, and see the return of democracy as well. It will tell the little known, but critically timed tale of Thais exiled by the coup, and their efforts to unite and fight the current military backed government. It will also feature the voices of young movements inside Thailand, both groups fighting to restore democracy, and improve the increasingly dismal human rights situation, despite grave dangers.