Wrong Place, Wrong Time, Right Movement

A 21 year old Thai activist faces life in prison for threatening the queen, here is his story:

Bunkuenen ‘Francis’ Paothong found himself caught in the perfect storm of unfortunate events. He was stuck between a dozens of protesters and a line of hardened riot police. The geared up officers had just tried to detain his friend. Armed with only a small megaphone, the 21-year-old was starting to run out of breath as he yelled back at the police to keep away from her.

His shirt was weighed down by sweat and the drama of the protest throughout that day. He needed to rest. But the bespeckled university student suddenly noticed commotion from behind him. As he turned around, it became eerily clear that a royal motorcade was pulling up almost directly at the edge of the crowd.  When the demonstrators recognised the royal car, the group erupted into a frenzy and many began raising the three-finger salute. 

“I averted my eyes back to the north of the road, and there it was,” Francis told Thai Enquirer. “The motorcade was there. But nobody told us. The police didn’t tell us that they were coming at all.”

Francis tried to get the situation under control.  He made a final attempt to use his megaphone to tell the protesters to move away from the royal motorcade so that nobody would get hurt. After telling the protesters to disperse from the front line, Francis pushed his way out of the crowd, sat down on the side of the road, and tried to catch his breath.

“I was already at the back, I was out of that vicinity and not near the motorcade,” Francis said. “And afterwards it’s just anybody’s game. It was not me who was trying to lead people back there.”

The incident changed Francis’s life forever.

Today, the Thai government is pursuing Francis for allegedly breaking an archaic law called Article 110, a law that punishes any act deemed a threat to the queen with a prison term of up to life in prison. The prosecution claims that he, and four others, had intent to threaten the queen. 

It’s the first time the law has been used in Thai contemporary history.

Pro-democracy activist Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong enters the Dusit Police Station to answer charges of harming Thailand’s Queen Suthida, two days after protesters nearly obstructed a royal motorcade, in Bangkok on October 16, 2020. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

Francis insists that the charges are politically motivated. Today, he chooses to respond with cautious optimism. He recites passages from his favorite pieces of literature and quotes his literary heroes to bring him hope. He’s only 21, but his views mirror the hundreds of thousands desperately calling for change. His charges indicate clearly what the movement is up against. Protesters and his supporters say his case reflects how far the state will go to silence the opposition.

“I am comforted by the fact that in a short period of time, we have been given so much opportunity to fight alongside my friends, and yet I have always felt that there is more that we can do. I can only say that it is my privilege to be a part of this fight,” he said with emotion in his voice before entering the courthouse on Wednesday.

Should my existence come to an end while in captivity, I shall go with no regrets,” Francis said to a group of reporters at a Bangkok court, anticipating that his bail would be denied.

But he has been granted bail, for now.

Protesters take part in a Hamtaro-themed “fun run” during an anti-government rally in front of Democracy Monument in Bangkok on July 26, 2020. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

A year of resistance

Since early July 2020, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Thailand to call for the military-backed government to stop harassing critics, rewrite a democratic constitution, and for ex-general turned prime minister, Prayut Chan-ocha, to step down.

More recently, the anti-government movement has taken aim at the nation’s once untouchable monarchy, calling for reform of the age-old institution.

The new democracy movement, largely led by young people, has seen swift retribution by the state. Scores of critics have been rounded up and arrested for speaking out. Police have used excessive force on peaceful protesters, opposition politicians are constantly legally harassed.

Since November, over 77 dissidents have been arrested, many face decades in prison for violating a flurry of charges, including royal defamation laws and sedition. The majority of the movement’s main leaders have been rounded up and arrested. There are currently 19 Thai youth activists in jail having been denied bail. 12 of those arrested are charged with lese majeste. 

Now, demonstrators on the streets are wondering how the movement can continue. Francis says it’s simply up to the people. There will likely have to be another serious event that will spark further unrest.

“It’s now up to the people if they want to continue to push or not,” he said.  “I mean in the end, the people will have to decide if they want to continue. They have to decide if they want to build a new country that works best for everyone.”

Francis was involved in multiple groups that raised awareness on Thai democracy issues. He joined The Coalition of Salaya, a student led organization at Mahidol University, early last year. He is not one of the movement’s leading protest leaders, in fact you could say he’s relatively low profile in comparison to others. But Francis says the work of everyone is important whether individual protesters or the protest leaders currently in jail.

“They are committed and dedicated people who are willing to push the buttons and possibly [risk] their own lives to drive this taboo of a conversation forward,” he said of the arrested leaders.

A water cannon truck is deployed by the police to disperse pro-democracy protesters marching toward the residence of Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha in Bangkok on February 28, 2021. (Photo by Jack TAYLOR / AFP)

A Year of Intimidation

The government has been attempting to stop Francis from joining protests since the middle of last year.  Francis first started getting involved with the protest movement back in February, 2020, just before COVID-19 temporarily put a pause on the movement. He gave speeches at Mahidol, but they resulted in plainclothes police knocking on his door.

“They came inside the house,” he said. “My mother looked so worried.”

They even used that against me, they said “Your mother looks worried, don’t you want to help the family.” The police said, at the time, that “all of this would go away” if he would stop going to the protests and cease being involved in organizing the rallies.

Francis’ parents are government supporters and “ultra-royalists.”

Naturally, they didn’t want him involved in the protests at all.  But when it became clear that the police were after him, they chose to protect their son and pleaded with police to stop intimidating him.

Before Thailand’s democracy movement reached its height, Francis described a vision he had where tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand change. Months later, the idea turned into reality when ten of thousands began massing in the Thai capital to call on a change of government.  

But just as the movement began to peak the motorcade incident occurred relegating Francis to a secondary role while awaiting trial and preparing his legal case. Since then, he’s been trying to adjust to life, reading literature, studying history and preparing for exams.

Little Evidence

Francis says there is no evidence that he committed a crime. Rights groups are calling the case preposterous and unjust. Some say the motorcade’s path was suspicious. A Reuters report pointed out these oddities and said that authorities must know that routing the motorcade in such a way would have caused problems. Many use the Reuters report to say that the entire event was orchestrated to allow for a broader crackdown on protesters.

Ekachai Hongkanwan, one of the five activists being indicted who was at the royal motorcade incident, told Thai Enquirer before walking into court that he believes the case is unjust. He explained that none of those present that day could have known that the motorcade was heading towards them.

“I hope the court chooses justice,” Ekachai said. “The court must stay committed to justice, because I have no reason to violate bail. I have never shown any intention to fly away,” he said. “I am not sure what they see me as, like a leader or keyman or anything else. But today maybe it will show something.”

Five years ago, Ekachai was imprisoned for two years on 112 charges. He has also been harassed and assaulted in recent years by unknown assailants.

Days before, Francis told Thai Enquirer that the prosecution plans to use witness testimony to indicate that they had intent to harm. But he said they don’t have much “concrete evidence.”

Human Rights Watch and other watchdog groups say the case isn’t valid.

“[The charges are] brought out without basis against prominent activists,” said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch.

“Prayut’s order to use all laws to silence and suppress the democracy uprising has become a blank check allowing Thai authorities to arbitrarily manipulate the law to trample people’s demands for democratic transition and monarchy reforms. Those who speak out face serious criminal charges and could be jailed for decades.”

Pro-democracy activist Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong (C) comforts loved ones before he enters the Dusit Police Station to answer charges of harming Thailand’s Queen Suthida, two days after protesters nearly obstructed a royal motorcade, in Bangkok on October 16, 2020. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

Friendship through dissent

Kay Phlongpan, 21, first met Francis during their first year at university. She was struck by his intelligence and determination early in their friendship. Kay told Thai Enquirer that Francis is the type to “fight for what’s right both inside and outside the classroom,” and that she “knew he would be the change of something powerful in the future,” she said.

They were both highly active in the Coalition for Salaya together and it didn’t take long for the two to become close. 

Francis invited her to join him working at the now disbanded opposition party, Future Forward, during the campaigning in the lead up to the 2019 election. She admired his work ethic, but it was his care and support for her that built their close friendship.

“When I received the news, it took a big mental toll on me,” she told Thai Enquier.  “I can’t really sleep well knowing one of my closest friends at university could possibly face such a scary charge and how it would affect him forever, especially for something he would be wrongfully convicted of.”

Before his charges, she believed the political situation in Thailand would improve, but when she heard the news about her friend, she couldn’t shake feelings of hopelessness. She explained that she was aware that under the Thai government Francis could be putting himself in harm’s way, but she believed that he was doing the right thing.

“I always have faith in him,” she said. 

“As a friend, I wouldn’t want him to fight alone, especially in this very hard time,” she added. “He called me the other night and affirmed to me to keep doing what’s right, to keep standing and keep banging the drum in the hope that someday people will listen.”

James Buchanan, a lecturer at Mahidol University, who has personally taught Francis, said he’s in disbelief this is happening to his student.

“Francis is an unusually intelligent and articulate young man with a bright future,” Buchanan said. “Instead of worrying about this legal case, he should be focusing on his final exams and graduating.”

Buchanan said that considering how bizarre the obscure law is, and the extent the Thai state will go to silence critics, it’s not surprising that the authorities are taking the case seriously.

Francis’s struggle is reflective of what the broader movement is up against. Many of the detained activists have told Thai Enquirer that they feel that while their cause is righteous, the monolithic nature of the state and the institutions feel like the fight is an uphill one.

Before Francis’s court appearance on Wednesday, he told Thai Enquirer that the struggle is not over.

“We need to reiterate that it’s not a done deal, it isnt’ finished,” he said. 

“Even though we’ve come so far, and we’ve pushed many buttons and shifted the landscape of the culture, we are not finished just yet. We are meant to do better. We must keep doing better.” 


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