Persons of the Year 2022: the Will of the People Fund

Interview by Kritsada Subpawanthanakun
Article by Anna Lawattanatrakul
Cover illustration by Kittiya On-in

For the past three years since student-led protests broke out in 2020, over 1800 people have been prosecuted for taking part in the protests. Several have been denied bail and held in pre-trial detention, while many have needed a large amount of money to post bail. For support, they have turned to the Will of the People Fund, a bail fund for pro-democracy activists and protesters, where donations flow into the Fund from supporters of the movement, many of whom may not be able to take to the street themselves.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), at least 1,888 people have been charged in 1,165 cases in relation to their participation in the pro-democracy movement between 18 July 2020 – 27 December 2022. Of these cases, at least 875 are still ongoing, with 443 now in court.

11 people are also currently detained pending trial or pending appeal on charges relating to political expression, three of whom are detained on royal defamation charges.

For their role in supporting activists and protesters prosecuted for participating in the pro-democracy movement and in fighting for their right to bail, Prachatai has named the Will of the People Fund and its supporters our 2022 Persons of the Year.

The will of the people

“I am sure that most donors are not rich people,” said editor and translator Ida Aroonwong. Following the 2014 military coup, when civilians were being tried in military courts for protesting against the junta, Ida and sociology lecturer Chalita Bundhuwong launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover their bail, which became the Will of the People Fund.

Ida said that it was difficult to say who has donated to the Fund. Although she recognized some of the names, some of whom were writers and middle-class intellectuals, the majority of donors were ordinary people who find donating to the Fund a way to make a stand. Ida said she noticed that most transfers to the Fund’s bank account were made in small amounts from ten to several hundred baht, and that it was very rare for anything more than 4 figures to come in at once.

Ida Aroonwong

Nevertheless, Ida felt the pride that comes with each donation, as donors often send transfer slips to the Fund’s Facebook page, telling them that the money is to help the young activists facing legal charges and possible jail time. She said that the donors may see the activists as their representatives and give money to the fund as a way of expressing their political stand and their discontent at the regime.

In February 2022, when activists Parit Chiwarak and Anon Nampa were granted bail after spending 6 months and 7 months respectively in prison, other activists put out a call for donations to the Will of the People Fund when they learned that the Fund did not have enough money to cover their bail, having just posted bail for another protester. Within less than 4 hours, it raised around 10 million baht, more than enough to cover bail for Parit and Anon and still have funding left to post bail for other protesters.

“This is not just the money. It’s power, so later we started using the word ‘will.’ It’s not just a pretty word we came up with, but it’s something that really happened. When we go to get our account book updated and see the transfers that come in, what is important is the many small transfers. We call it political power, an expression of political will. It’s not tax money that people are forced to pay, but they choose to pay it,” Ida said.

“Sometimes, I even feel that it’s beyond that, that it has a sanctity within itself. It’s not just a fund supporting bail for the accused in political cases. It’s more than that. It’s an expression of the people’s voice.”

A crowd standing along a street in the Siam Square shopping district during a protest calling for the release of political prisoners in July 2022

Several donors have said that they donated to the Fund because they wanted to support people who face injustice at the hands of the state. Many are also unable to join the protests due to the circumstances of their lives, from their jobs and possible consequences to the distance they have to travel to get to a protest. Regularly publishing a record of when and how the money has been used on Facebook also means that donors can be sure their donations are being used for the intended purposes.

“It’s one of the most trustworthy ways for people behind the lines to support [the movement,] especially if the goal is to help people who face injustice from the actions of the state,” said a donor.

Another donor said that donating to the Fund is a way of participating in the movement and to take a stand when one can’t do so openly. They said that although donating is taking the easy route, it is still a good way to show support, as money has been used as an obstacle to the pro-democracy movement.

And despite investigation attempts from the authorities and concerns from family members, the owner of the River Art Hotel Chiang Mai continues to openly donate to the Fund, both personally and as a business via campaigns where they donate part of their income from rooms.

“This Fund supports human rights and it is something this country should have, and I’m not sure whether I will also [get charged] one day,” said the owner.

“I know what is happening to this country, so people know that there are people who support, or that there are businesses who support this Fund, not just ordinary people.”

Sureerat Chiwarak (centre, black shirt) hugging her son Parit when he was released from prison on 24 February 2022 after spending 6 months in pre-trial detention on several royal defamation charges.

Meanwhile, Sureerat Chiwarak is giving back to the Fund in a different way. The 52-year-old accountant is the mother of activist Parit Chiwarak, who emerged as a monarchy reform advocate in the student-led protests of 2020. Facing a number of charges relating to his activism, including at least 23 counts of royal defamation, Parit has had to spend months in pre-trial detention while his mother and lawyers fight for bail.

The Will of the People Fund covered Parit’s bail, and now Sureerat is volunteering as an accountant for the Fund.

“If it’s just normal accounting, then it’s money in and money out, but by chance when I was setting up the system, I thought that we should make it so that it also collects data and so we can autonomically pull out data, such as if we want to know which case the bail money is being used and in which court,” she explained.

“I didn’t buy any software. I just use the ordinary local software, but I used my experience to help me adapt it. My son also one of those using money from the Fund, so I know how the system should be set up and which data should be collected.”

Sureerat said this was how she can give back to the Fund. She also wanted to show non-profit organizations that they need strong accounting systems to ensure transparency and make easier for the work to be continued by future generations.

“Without this Fund, the kids would still be in jail. They would have to close the entire prison to hold our children. If they didn’t have money for bail, then the kids have to go to jail. Their future would be ruined,” Sureerat said.

For Ida, the name of the Fund is not just a name but an indication that the Fund is more than money but is a way for people to express their will.

“When we named it the Will of the People Fund, it was our way of marking that this is what it really means,” Ida said.

“It’s not just a bail fund for political defendants. It’s the Will of the People Fund. It’s what they want, their will. It’s how the people make their voice heard,”

“The most primeval kind of bureaucracy”

Despite the support, it has not been smooth sailing for the Will of the People Fund. Ida and her team have to manage the money so that they always have enough to cover bail and put out calls for donations if it seems like they won’t have enough, as well as making sure that the bail money that is returned at the end of a case comes back to the Fund. They also have to navigate the complicated bureaucratic system of the court, which Ida said is “the most primeval kind of bureaucracy” that has refused to change to keep up with the times.

All the red tape slows down their work, as they have to learn to deal with the required paperwork, which can be different from court to court, while also having to be very careful, knowing that they can be probed by the authorities if they slip up.

“I know that we can be the target of political games through mechanisms like the Revenue Department at any time because we deal with political cases, so we can’t make mistakes. We have to be very cautious, and that forces us to become bureaucratic and be as nit-picking as the bureaucrats, so they can’t pick on us. And another reason is that it’s money donated by the people. We are always conscious of this, which reminds us that we must be responsible with the people’s money,” Ida said.

Meanwhile, the courts can be inconsistent when it comes to how much money they require for bail. Often, it is up to the judges to set the amount and other conditions, and even whether to grant bail or not. Ida said that judges often don’t explain their reasoning when setting the amount of bail money, and she would prefer it if there were a set standard for how much money is needed for bail rather than leaving it up to the discretion of the judge, which is subjective and can be biased based on a set of moral norms that for her is nothing but personal preference.

“I feel that bail is not a matter of principles. Not granting bail should be the exception. You have to grant them bail first, because the case has not ended. The trial hasn’t even started. What right do you have to lock them up?” Ida said.

Ida has also seen some defendants who have  been held in pre-trial detention until the charges against them have been dismissed or who have spent more time in jail than their sentence. She questioned if these examples would make the court realise that it should begin by granting bail, especially in political cases, and said that it would not be possible for defendants facing political charges to tamper with evidence when the prosecution witnesses are often government officials. 

And if the charges against someone detained pending trial is dismissed, the court may or may not pay damages for the time they spend in prison. Ida said the court often refuses to pay damages if the charges are dismissed because the prosecution cannot prove they are guilty and the court rule to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt, but the court does not consider them innocent.

During a protest march in August 2022, activists wore chains as a symbolic act of protest against being required to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet as part of their bail condition.

The courts have also been setting more bail conditions in addition to requiring money. Activists and protesters being prosecuted are often required not to repeat the offences they were accused of, or they will be breaking the conditions of their bail, which means that they can have their bail revoked.

However, the court has lately been setting the condition that the bail money will be confiscated if the accused break their bail conditions. This makes Ida, who has acted as volunteer guarantor for many activists, question if it was possible for judges to set their own conditions in addition to the contract which says that the defendants will not flee and will go through the judicial process.

“I’m a straightforward person. I still feel that a bail contract and what the bail money means is agreeing to enter a process. It has nothing to do with any other condition the court sets, especially if those conditions are not related to fighting the case. It’s conditions like not repeating offenses, where they have not been found guilty of what they are accused of,” she said.  

Pornchai Yuanyee, Sinburi Saenkla, and Micky were released from Bangkok Remand Prison on Tuesday night (22 November) after they were granted bail. (Photo by Ginger Cat)

Recently, judges have also been refusing to allow activists to use money from the Will of the People Fund to post bail and require family members to post bail themselves instead of giving the task to a volunteer. When activists Pornchai Yuanyee, Sinburi Saenkla, and Micky (full name withheld) were granted bail after being detained pending trial on charges relating to the burning of a royal ceremonial arch in front of Ratchawinit School, the Criminal Court required their family members, who were appointed their supervisors, to post bail for the activists with their own money. They were released on the condition that the bail money would be confiscated and their supervisors held responsible if they broke their bail conditions.

Activist Nawapol Tonngam was also denied bail in November 2022 and detained for one night at Bangkok Remand Prison following his indictment, as the Criminal Court refused to allow a volunteer guarantor to post bail for him. He was only released when a family member come to post bail for him and agreed to be made his supervisor. The Court also required the guarantor to agree that they would be held responsible if Nawapol broke his bail conditions.

Ida said she is still trying to understand why the court would make things more complicated than they should be.

“There should be no discrimination. Why do you think this accused person would do it? What about the hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of accused people in the country who use the same contract and the same official bail contract form? Why can they do it?” Ida asked.

“This is not a shocking case. This is a case from exercising one’s right to freedom of expression. The court can say that it’s proportional or appropriate or reasonable if it wants, but to distort a process that should be straightforward and make it more complicated for freedom of expression cases, I think it’s excessive.” 

The fund that shouldn’t exist

Activists and academics standing in front of the Supreme Court in Bangkok during one of the daily Stand Against Detention protests in July 2022

Over the past three years, the Will of the People Fund has raised a total of around 50 million baht, 40 million of which is now held by various courts as bail money, which will be returned after the relevant cases are decided. The rest has gone into covering travel costs, fines, and used to support detainees.

Ida said the money they have is enough, as long as it is well-managed, but the Fund needs to make itself more sustainable so the work can continue if needed. Because of this, the Will of the People Fund has registered itself as the Siddhi Issara Foundation, not only to ensure transparency when managing donations but also to make it an organization with full-time workers to keep the Fund going.

On New Year's Eve (31 December 2022), activists in Chiang Mai stood near Tha Phae gates, a popular tourist landmark in the city, during a countdown event to protest the detention of political prisoners (Photo by Natchalee Singsaohae)

But above all, Ida still wants the Fund ultimately to be disbanded, since it should not have existed to begin with. The defendants supported by the Fund are charged over their political activity, and Ida said it was wrong to require such a high amount of money to post bail for them.

She noted that many young activists and protesters are from low-income backgrounds and are not able to find their own bail money, and said that government funds like the Justice Fund under the Ministry of Justice should help people without discriminating against defendants facing charges like sedition or royal defamation.

“If you call it the law, you must let them fight within the boundary of the law with dignity, as much as the law allows. Being granted bail makes it a fair fight, so I feel that even the government’s fund itself can help. You’re not supporting crime,” Ida said.

“As long as the official mechanisms do not allow something like this, the people will use us as an avenue of political expression. If we can raise a lot [of money], it’s more like a slap in the face. I don’t want to do anything like that. I want the normal function to keep going.”

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