Life for a Thai in exile: Jakrapob Penkair - Part 3

The veteran politician, closed-aid to ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra has lived in self-imposed exile for 6 years. In part 3 of the interview, Jakrapob Penkair talked about the conflicts among the Thai elites within the junta regime, the role of Pheu Thai Party, and his life outside the country.

Although Jakrapob Penkair may have disappeared from the Thai political scene many years ago, his name still resounds. This confirms his status as a 'political man' whose latest achievement is to co-found 'Seri Thai'--an organisation whose mandate is to fight the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) from outside the country. It is the task which has prompted another round of surveillance on him by the authorities.

Jakrapob has led a life of a great variety. After going to Johns Hopkins University in the United States, his career has ranged from the private sector to the civil service in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; from being a writer to plunging into the game of politics as Government Spokesperson in more than one administration. Not long after joining the Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party, however, he was charged with lèse majesté after sharing his views on the patronage system in Thai society with foreign journalists. After that, he was involved in establishing the main faction of the anti-establishment red-shirt Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) before it evolved into the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). In 2009 he decided to leave Thailand and since then has lived in exile.

It has been six years since he started this self-imposed exile. However, he does not want to define himself as a refugee. On the contrary, he calls himself an activist for democracy in exile. Regarding him as a politician of pragmatism who adapted to the turns of the political tide to survive change, Prachatai interviewed Jakrapob Penkair on the current political situation. Let's find out his views on Thai politics at present as well as the steps taken by the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), the UDD or the Red-Shirt movement. Find out what it is like to be an exile in the current context.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview



Do you think that the overturning of the draft constitution was something the NCPO demanded or was it a wave of resistance from the people?

I'll answer as much as I know. On this point, I dare not say more than I know. I think all along drafting a constitution is a learning curve for those who stage coups. It is not just Prayut. It's also the PDRC, academics, representatives of the Privy Council, and many more groups. Simply put, if you really want to know who actually holds power in Thailand, you have to look at the National Reform Council (NRC), not the NCPO. This constitution was a collaboration between them. The reason why it failed is because of disagreements about the goals among the Thai elite. They are the side that has not been able to agree.  This has nothing to do with the people.

Many members of the NRC feel that they have not totally suppressed Thaksin, so how can they step down? Another faction thinks that Prayut can do no more. There is no use in giving him more time. There are other ways to apply pressure. Another matter where they disagree is national development. One side wants to see the policy details specified in the constitution, but others think it is not necessary.

What is the strategy of the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), especially now?

Personally, I assume that PTP's strategy, and this should include UDD is to alert society and make them understand that letting the NCPO stay on indefinitely is harming them. This will pressure the NCPO to create new processes.

You will not be a leader at this time?

Maybe. We have to look at other things too. I am not the one to make the decision. I might push for PTP to provide intellectual leadership. At least, it must insist on organising various discussions seminars. This will get them arrested, so once out they do it again. They have to take turns. They have to be the representatives of rights and freedoms, because if you dare not fight for your own rights and freedom, how can you expect people to give you rights in an election?

Are you disappointed that Seri Thai has only this role?

It is a learning process for us. If you can't build a main road, you can't blame the soi. If you can’t make the main road straight and the soi is crooked, you have to ask the main road why it was crooked from the beginning. Talking like about who is to blame benefits no one. But in sum, Seri Thai, which was founded at least a year ago now, has not had the role it should have. People in the group have to brainstorm what should be done next. Politics is about making political proposals and whether the people join in or not. But most importantly, you need to have the freedom to propose those ideas first. So we need to have a role and an attitude to insist on this main premise.

PTP must have its own manifesto with its own standpoints and proposals rather than just saying that there must be elections as soon as possible. The proposals must be more than that. So if there is no election in the near future, what will we do? For example, PTP must insist and act as if it were the government by saying if Somkid Jatusripitak or Prawit Wongsuwan have done right or wrong in terms of policy. There is no one saying you can't perform this role, except it might risk jail, which is worth the risk. But the reason why I didn't talk about this before is because I am not the one taking the risk that other people are taking. Encouraging them to take risks while I am out of the country is not very fair. But since you asked, I have to speak.

Life outside the country


"The most painful and difficult thing for me personally in this fight is having a political leader who is rich. This makes everyone else look like employees. It creates the belief that we do everything for the money and this fight is easy and we must get tens or hundreds of millions."

"That is an illusion. Now we are fighting in the streets, not in the jungle like before. The truth is loneliness and isolation follows you everywhere wherever you are. "

Why did you decide to leave the country?

I voluntarily left Thailand on 14 April 2009, because I learned from a source that my life was not safe. That was during the time UDD was staging a protest in front of Government House under the Abhisit Vejjajiva government who were collaborating with the Bhumjaithai Party of Newin Chidchob. The source said it might not be safe because of the Blue Shirts. They wanted to use the 6-October model where it would look like the opposition were dissatisfied and they would attack the core leaders of the protest. I didn't flee because I feared death, but because I felt that I wouldn't be able to continue with my work. So I talked to Jatuporn Prompan. Jatuporn showed his courage by waiting for what was to come. It is my belief that there was no massacre on the day the protest was dispersed because Veera (Veerakarn) Musikapong, the UDD President announced the end of the demonstration as military forces were closing in from all four directions.

That day I decided that looking at the situation, I thought there was still a chance to negotiate and find a political solution. It was worth some people going to prison for, waiting for another opportunity to mobilise the people.  I positioned myself to coordinate from outside the country. But all this was my subjective thoughts. There was no joint plan. This was my own idea.

Being I got to where I am, I was set up as the political leader outside the country. So I have been given a privilege above other political refugees. It has already been a long while, but they still carry on helping me as before. I have constantly been travelling to different countries. I see where I am as a political base, not a place of political refuge. Political refuge is found everywhere I have travelled to work.

Has your family been affected?

More of a psychological impact.  My family hasn’t been threatened. But the families and friends of the provincial leaders have been threatened. They were deprived of their livelihood. Maybe because I am a leader who is well-known. I do not see the fact that I haven't been threatened as their respect for human rights.

I am not like other politicians. I have no assets to lose, I have no companies to be investigated, so I have not been attacked economically. I cannot join them in corruption. The only issue I suffer from is lèse majesté, not corruption.

This may be my personal fantasy. Maybe it's not true, but I think there are many components of Thai society which deep down inside think that questioning the issue of the institution of the monarchy is not an offence. Even with the royalists, there are people praying for someone to bring up the topic of how the monarchy and the people can co-exist. This is the important issue. Thai democracy right now depends on the form of the relationship between the monarchy and the democratic institutions. I say this because we are not a revolutionary society which will fight until there is only one side left.

I think I am satisfied and proud of my status as a refugee who has to seek asylum based on this issue. I think it is worth the cause.

What is the status of the Article 112 charges?

Right now I understand they’ve all been dropped.

In the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) case, the public prosecutor had decided not to prosecute. In the LA case they ordered it to be put on hold. In one case I spoke English in Thailand; in the other I spoke in Thai in the US.

If they now revisit the FCCT case, it looks like a trivial case. In fact, the wording was not strong, but they might have felt that the meaning was strong because it was a warning that the people don’t want the old patronage system.  They will take up a new one which they felt more part of. That was all. The charge was filed 8 months after I spoke. I became a Minister, and after that, they took this issue and filed a case.

For the Article 112 charges, we have to go sentence by sentence, with quotations, and argue according to that sentence. If we can argue on the meaning of those sentences, we have the right to overturn the case. But as it happens, there is hardly anyone who dares help the defendant defend his innocence. The whole system does not want to get involved. When a case is passed on, instead of issuing an opinion in favour of the defendant according to the truth, they don’t do it. The fact that there have been so many convicts under this Article is because the whole system lacks moral courage, both the judicial and social systems. But certainly, they perform different functions. The social system ignores it; the government system facilitates the trial.

How do you make a living these days?

I work as a consultant for foreign firms investing in the country where I live. My family also invests the money I have. Some of it is sent back. But most will be used to support them in Thailand, which means I don't need to transfer money back to them. Luckily, there are fewer than ten people who I have to look after. The third part is an equal share with others in an orchard cooperative here, but this is not a lot. In total, it is enough; I don’t think it’s a problem.  I shouldn’t complain that it’s a problem.

As a person who is outside and can't go back to your family on important occasions, how does it feel?

Political activists risk having a broken family since they give importance to other people outside their own families. But then again, it is a personal choice. Gandhi's son, for instance, spoke in an interview after his father became famous that Gandhi was the Father of the Nation, but not his father because he had never raised his son. I don't know if this makes Gandhi a good or a bad person. For me, I myself have chosen this kind of life. If there is such a thing as an ego or an ideal, let society decide about me. I think that I was born to carry out this task, meaning that I wanted to change society. This happened even before I knew Thaksin, way before there were the Red and the Yellow. Why does Thai society have this invisible glass ceiling pressing against people's heads? Where is it from? Until I grew up and had political experience, I saw where this glass ceiling was and decided to fight against it. But it turns out to be harder than other things because Thai dictators are timid. They are not brave enough to fully exercise their power. They hide their use of power. Their face is a smile, they have a sense of humour, half playful, half serious, which can fool people from outside the culture into thinking there is no problem.

The most painful and difficult thing for me personally in this fight is having a political leader who is rich. This makes everyone else look like employees. It creates the belief that we do everything for the money and this fight is easy and we must get tens or hundreds of millions. But not many people can really see me. If you look at me from head to toe, you will realise I am not that kind of person. This is what disheartens me most, much more than having to live in exile, because the people who should understand me most, sometimes don’t understand. They think I fight in a comfortable way, with no problems. That is an illusion. Now we are fighting in the streets, not in the jungle like before. The truth is loneliness and isolation follows you everywhere wherever you are.

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