Pruay, Refugee and Director of Democracy After Death

In October 2016, there was a minor news report that at an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of 6 October 1976 and coincidentally the 10th anniversary of the 2006 coup, a film named Democracy After Death: The Tragedy of Uncle Nuamthong Praiwan was shown with no real marketing. After that showing, there does not appear to have been any screenings or distribution anywhere else. There were only rumours that the organizing committee was warned by security officials that some of the film’s content might constitute a violation of the lèse-majesté law.

Democracy After Death: the film that went almost completely unmentioned

Most recently, Democracy After Death was screened again at the Screening of Thai Political Films event organized by the ASEAN Friends Group last Nov. 5 at Sungkonghoe University in South Korea.

The film mixes several presentation formats, including animation, performances, and a large amount of actual news footage. Overall, Democracy After Death could be called one of the most colourful and complete Thai political documentaries ever. The documentary not only commemorates the story of the struggle and death of Nuamthong Praiwan, the elderly taxi driver who drove his taxi into a tank to protest the 2006 coup and eventually hanged himself to affirm there are those who are ready to sacrifice their lives to oppose the coup. It also reviews the beginning of the political conflicts of 2006, which can be seen as the beginning of the now-10-year-long political turmoil that shows no signs of stopping.

Images of violence, cruelty, anger and debilitating hopelessness are shown over the hour and a half. Instead of the normal film credits rolling at the end, the word “Anonymous” appears repeatedly. There is only the name of the director: Neti Wichiansaen. He is a director of advertisements that had to flee Thailand because of some posts he made on a political webboard. The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) arrested him, saying that his photos and comments broke the lèse-majesté law.

People may not know him by his real name, but his pseudonym, Pruay Saltihead, is likely to be well-known among politically-active internet users from 2006 on.

Who is Pruay?

“When I posted my opinions on the webboard, I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I didn’t abuse anyone too much. I didn’t attack any individual. I never thought this country would reach this point.

“I started getting interested in politics probably because my dad is a lawyer and was once a candidate for the New Power Party in Kalasin Province. We had a lot of books at home and no TV, so I read a lot, especially about Oct. 6. My curiosity really began when I saw dad burn some political books in the oven. I also read books about the death of Rama VIII around that time.

“I have an account called ‘Loves Movies’ in Pantip [a popular Thai webboard]. I use it to comment about movies and even write some fiction. When the events in ‘06 happened, I posted about Nepalese politics in the Ratchadamnoen webboard, so my account was suspended. My old articles and writings were all gone. I had to move to the Prachatai webboard and the Fa Diew Kan webboard.

“My username Pruay came from political awareness at the time when Thaksin was being hounded out. At that time I understood that the President of the Privy Council supported kicking Thaksin out, so I created a spoonerism of “Pruay” from Gen. Prem’s name. Not long after the 2006 coup though, I knew there was more to it than that.”

Pruay Saltihead

Arrest

“I was arrested on 31 May 2010 while I was driving out of my neighbourhood. There was a car parked at the entrance of my neighbourhood. It looked like it had broken down, so I got out of my car to look. The driver was a woman. Then suddenly cars and DSI officers were surrounding me and asked me if I was Pruay or not. I said yes, and they arrested me under Article 112.

“Since then and until today, I have no idea what exactly I wrote that was wrong. I didn’t have Facebook at that time, I was only on the Prachatai and Fa Diew Kan webboards. When they took me, they had a thick file full of evidence against me. They showed me some of it. It was photos of the National Security Council meeting the King on the night of the coup on 19 September 2006, with a sarcastic comment along the lines of, ‘It’s nice to be a soldier. When you stage a coup there’s always someone to countersign it for you.’

“So I don’t know what evidence they used against me because they had such a big file. Some of the evidence they showed me was from 2008. I couldn’t remember if I had posted it or not because it was so long ago.

“On posts about the monarchy, mostly I didn’t specify any specific person but used the word ‘monarchical institution.’ They were critiques of the institution itself, not of specific personages in a political role.

“They caught me by tracking my IP Address because I didn’t conceal anything. My house, car, and phone are all under my name.

You can clearly see that I was caught because of lèse-majesté. When they arrested me, they showed me a list of names and asked me who I knew, who I went protesting with, and do I have red shirts at home. I replied that I didn’t know anyone, I went protesting alone, and that I don’t like to wear red coloured shirts. I really didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know what to say.

“They took me for interrogation me for around five hours before releasing me. At first I said I would call a lawyer but the leader of the people who arrested me asked if we could talk formally first. So we agreed to talk first without a lawyer yet. We talked and then the officers escorted me home, and took my hard disk, computer, and political books. It seemed like I had a few privileges when they saw my living conditions as an employee.  The estate where I live looks middle-class. Sometimes I feel sorry for poor red shirts people who got caught, like Uncle SMS, A Kong, who got caught and locked up.

“The officials were probably confused, because most people who are arrested deny posting anything. But I said that I did post those things. The reason why I accepted it is because I thought that I’d definitely get caught. If I denied it, then I was afraid of creating more confusion. And I thought It was a good opportunity for me to say what I wanted directly to the state. They asked, what do you think of the [monarchical] institution, so I answered straightforwardly.

“On the day they arrested me, they also arrested and interrogated my mother and younger sister. We were in the same meeting room, but interrogated in different corners. My mother is a yellow shirt and used to teach in a private school. I overheard them asking her why she didn’t warn me. My mother replied that I was a grown man, and we can’t have the same opinions on everything. I heard her and thought, if all yellow shirts were like her, our country would be a nice place to live.”

The reason for fleeing

“That night, they let me go. They told me that they were compiling evidence to prosecute me. An official called me repeatedly to check if I was still using the Internet, and I said that I wasn’t. Every Monday, they called me in to get back my stuff, one item at a time. I understood it was to check if I was still there. On the third week, they called me in to pick up my hard disk. They said that they had taken all of my data. I thought that it was dangerous that they had done it without me being present. So I decided to get out of the country.

“I cannot accept the state of being locked up. At that time, the red-shirt protestors were being hunted down and were escaping to neighbouring countries in droves. There was news that some were shot dead. I didn’t know anybody so I decided to get out. I got on the train at Sam Sen, with a good chance of getting through immigration.

“When the train moved away from the Thai border, I knew that I was safe. I had simultaneous feelings rushing up in me:  I was worried about my mother, little sister, and our home. But when I got away, damn, it was the most amazing feeling…

“I’m a filmmaker. So the day before I escaped, I took my SLR camera and pawned it to get a newer model that can take good videos. It became my weapon. Part of the footage for ‘Uncle Nuamthong’ was filmed with that very camera I took when I escaped.

“Before I had to escape the country, I had an income of 1–2 million from making ads. This income wasn’t certain. Just think, there’s not an ad to make every month. I got 150,000 per ad roughly. When I fled the country I had around 400,000–500,000 baht with me, and it lasted me two years.

“When I left home I told my mother that after five years I could come back. At the time I thought that there would be elections and everything would be settled. But now it’s been 6–7 years and I don’t see any future.

“I don’t know anyone. When I was arrested and interrogated, the officials told me not to post on the web boards, but instead talk face-to-face with friends. But I have nobody, all my friends are friggin’ yellow shirts.”

“No one knew me until there began to be news after I had escaped the country. I began to use the Internet to search for information on asylum and started posting on Facebook again. Then people started contacting me behind the scene. The DSI arrest warrant then reached my house in Thailand, charging me with 112.’

Requesting refugee status

“I went to Nepal next because I found out through Google that Nepal grants 5-month tourist visas, and there was also a UNHCR office there. I had travelled there before, staying for months at a time, so I decided to go there. After I found a place to stay, I looked for a way to contact my mother to reassure her that I was safe.

“Then I had to explain to the UNHCR to make them understand what the problem is with the lèse-majesté law. They didn’t understand; they were only used to dealing with war refugees. They also had a prejudice against refugees because some are economic refugees. Things were resolved, however, when the DSI issued a warrant for me. I got a copy of it and translated it for them, and then they understood.

“When I went to contact the UNHCR, an official got someone who has dealt for a long time with people seeking asylum to take me to find a place to rent and stay. When I saw the place, I knew I couldn’t live there. After that they took me to a hospital. I saw the state of the hospital and thought to myself, ‘dammit! I can’t let myself get sick here!’

“The interview procedures in fact were completed in four months. The next stage was approval of my refugee status so I could contact a third country. I waited, my visa ran out and I still hadn’t got it. It was then 2011, and I had to exit the country and wait until I could re-enter in 2012. I decided not to wait. I asked Sudanese, Somalis, Afghanis who had come to ask for asylum. Some had been living in Nepal for 3, 4, 7 years. It was like living in a large prison.

“One limitation for those seeking asylum outside the country where they are seeking asylum is that their refugee status can continue pending for as long as six months. So I asked the UNHCR to move to another country closer to Thailand.

“When I came to this country neighbouring Thailand, a friend had suggested that I re-enter Thailand, but keep quiet and not make any moves. But I didn’t want this because there was no insurance at all. My life at home was lost anyway. I think I made the right decision because after the coup, dormant [lèse-majesté] cases were all summoned.

“At that time I was trying to contact one other embassy to get refugee status. They agreed to take the issue to their government, and said that they would arrange an interview. The UNHCR said they would grant me refugee status because the interview process was completed in Nepal, but I never saw it. Someone pointed it out to me that they may see me travelling about, so it looks like I’m not yet in any difficulty. I don’t look like a ‘victim’, so they don’t give me the status.

The problem for refugees is that visas expire, but some people disagree that it’s something normal and an indicator that those seeking asylum have really been driven to the limit of their struggle. If you come to Malaysia then you have to cross the border to extend your visa in Singapore. When you extend your visa a second time, you have problems with Malaysian immigration. They call you for questioning since they suspect that you’ve come to do something. Have you come to get work? Why haven’t you gone back to Thailand? I explained that I was a documentary filmmaker and showed them the website with a collection of my work, so I was able to pass.  But when I left, I decided not to go back again.

“When I left the country I had 400,000–500,000 baht, which lasted 2 years. But I have skills, knowledge, and friends so I could still find some work.

“Since I came to live here, you could say I’ve gotten a pretty good start. Getting a visa and other procedures is fairly easy, so I started work. It’s good that I still have a passport so I can travel. The work runs from designing logos, book covers, and odds and ends (laughs). I still have enough income. Friends in many countries help me get work too. I also have the equipment. When there’s work in Malaysia or Singapore, I fly there. I take photographs, do apartment renovation design jobs, make slideshows, all kinds of work (laughs).”

The future

“I didn’t think of settling down here. I still hope to get asylum from the embassy I contacted in June 2011. Acknowledgement came in September 2013. They contacted me for an interview in one country I could go to. After the interview, I came back to wait for the results. About 6 months passed and in 2014 they said they would not accept my case because 1) no one knew me there and 2) my life wasn’t in a crisis, I could still travel from place to place. I appealed. By chance this was right after the 2014 coup, so I explained to them that the situation had changed for the worse and the reason I applied for refugee status there even though no one knew me there was because that country allowed people to seek asylum from outside the country.

“In answer to the claim that I wasn’t in trouble, I appealed by asking how being forced to live a quiet clandestine life where I could not reveal my location is a normal untroubled life. Although I’m a refugee from a third-world country, I want to live like people in civilized countries and to be able to express myself and my opinions like normal people. In the end they still refused me.

“I will say that when I appealed I annoyed them. I argued on the issue of basic rights that all humans should enjoy equally. I didn’t act to make them to take pity on me.

To be honest, when I fled the country, I met an NGO friend who told me that if I was a journalist or activist, I would get protection. So I wonder why ordinary citizens don’t get the same protection.

“The refugee process became clear in 2014, that a request for asylum from outside the country would not work. It was very hard. This coincided with the increased violence in our country. Getting home is not likely to be.”

Troubles

“The house where I lived with my mother and sister I bought on instalments. I paid off about 2 million. When I first left the country, I tried to continue paying but in the end I couldn’t afford it, so we decided to sell the house so that at least we could get back the money we’d paid to spend. But the flood at the end of 2011 came and we couldn’t sell it. In the end the bank foreclosed on the house and we didn’t get back a single baht.”

“Another awful period was when I didn’t have a passport. To live, you need a job, and to travel. If you can’t travel, you have less work. I’ve been in this industry for 20 years. I have fun with being on the set, making movies.”

“I began to lose hope that I would ever come home as I had anticipated during the Yingluck administration. For the social changes or amendments to outdated laws which will cause a popular revolution, MPs are our hope, but there is not a single MP who is brave enough to stand up and suggest amending this set of laws. I’ve begun to think we’ve been too optimistic in the past.

“There is no future.”

About the Uncle Nuamthong film

“First I must explain, to prevent any misunderstanding, that this documentary is unrelated to the project to make a Nuamthong movie which fell through. This documentary didn’t use much funding. It used a crew of only 3–4 people, and was filmed in two countries. It used a lot of footage which we asked permission for or in some cases paid for.  It wasn’t expensive.

“It’s like not all the events that were important points were included. I admit that it was a limitation. We abbreviated 10 years into a little more than an hour. That’s difficult. I think that if the film has the goal of stimulating the interest of the audience to explore further, that should be enough.”

When no one dared to screen it

“I didn’t really think anything. I didn’t want to create trouble for anyone. Basically I think I’ve finished my job. Some university students contacted me saying they wanted to screen it in educational institutions. It should be OK like that, showing it secretly in small groups.”

What kind of film reveals only the director’s name?

“For me as director, I have nothing to lose. There’s a summons from the DSI, the news has spread, but I’ve been able to flee the country, so I thought it would be okay to reveal my name.

“As for the rest of the team, they’re still in this industry. If their names are revealed, there may be problems in the future in including their names. So they have to stay anonymous.”

Thais in Exile: The Next Documentary Project

“At first I wanted to make a documentary about political and lèse-majesté refugees all over the world in order to make a record of their stories to present a different perspective of the truth to the audience. Then it’s up to them to fight over which model they want, a republic or a democracy like Japan’s. But after the latest coup in Thailand, many people fled the country so it was a good opportunity. There were many celebrities for us to film easily. The project started to take shape. Now it wasn’t just lèse majesté, but also about people who were political refugees the coup.

“I tried travelling around, pitching the project to businessmen interested in politics, trying to sell it. After a few interviews, I edited a preview and sent it to ask for funding to make the documentary from various funders. I sent it to 6–7 in case I could get travel expenses to film the stories of refugees who lived really far. But I didn’t get funds from anywhere at all. It was like a lottery (laughs).”

The need to communicate

“I want to show how strange Thai society is in tourism ads that Thais make for foreigners. They get to see peace and happiness with monks, temples, good food, Thai boxing, a beloved king, and Patpong. But what they don’t know is that our country has refugees, and the reason we have to flee is so damn funny. Other countries have wars, and people have to flee because they’re killing each other. They have to carry their families to escape death. But our country has refugees just because of expressing opinions. Some are actors, some are musicians. We all have to flee just because we say things that one group of people don’t want to hear. It’s really a sick joke (laughs).

“The kind of political problems that creates Thai political refugees, when compared to other countries, may seem petty. But I want to say that the problems of Thai political refugees are problems they should be interested in giving the same kind of importance to.

“If you ask if what I’m doing is call ‘fighting,’ that’s too much. Maybe you could say I’m doing what I’m good at as a member of one faction of society that feels that it wants to see justice in Thailand. I’ve made ads before. That’s what I’m skilled at. In the neighbouring countries I filmed all the footage. The rest I got friends who are working in those countries to help shoot footage. Now what’s left is only asylum-seekers in distant countries that I’m still looking for a way to film.”

A recurring dream that haunts me

“I may be a lucky guy. In my life I do what I love (make movies), and I get paid a lot of money for it. It’s like someone hiring me to do something I want to do anyway. I’m always thinking about what might be the reason for this recurring dream I have these days. It recurs at least 3–4 times a month with the same pattern. I dream that I accept a job, film a movie, edit it, and do other technical work on it. The location is in Thailand. But every time, I never complete it because the police come and arrest me every time. Sometimes, it’s even a dream within a dream. I argue with myself that I’m dreaming.

“So far I’m still trying to do what I’m good at. I like it, so I’m totally into it, like this refugee documentary. Doubly so. I tell a story about injustice in the medium I like. It’s the best.”

What did you think after watching Democracy After Death?

Pattaporn Phutong - A crew member for the film Memory | Soundless and With Respect got to watch Democracy After Death in South Korea and talks about the atmosphere at the screening.

“Let me first say that I’m not a film fanatic or expert or professional filmmaker. My opinions will be that of a regular moviegoer, a person who can’t stand political and systematic violence, and someone who picks sides [politically].”

“I think with all of its limitations, telling the story through news footage is really a cool option he chose to do. I can clearly see the cause and effect and the order of events. The storytelling draws us to the truth, no matter how painful and horrific it is. During the film, I was too scared to watch many parts. I’m scared of blood and gore, but at the same time, I thought to myself that if I was too scared to face the truth, then I was fooling myself that everything was alright.”

“Another good thing about the film is that it made me see that ‘heart,’ ‘ideals,’ and ‘hope’ really do exist. Although the ending is sad, I didn’t feel abandoned and alone at the end. (What I didn’t like was the male narrator. I felt he was out-of-place, and why did he have to smoke and drink beer so much? I felt that was too on-the-nose. It made me not want to smoke, and many times he appeared unnecessarily.)”

“I don’t think it’s a movie that you watch for fun or watch alone. As an audience member, I chose to watch in a group. Some movies aren’t suitable for watching alone. This movie leaves us questions for us to discuss with other audience members. If you watch alone, the questions will just run around in your head.”

“At first, the event organizer and I were considering and discussing whether we should screen this film. I had to travel back to Thailand and had no plans to live overseas. I felt disturbed and worried. I hated feeling this way, like I was scared and quietly violated. The most uncomfortable thing was feeling scared when I was talking or discussing this topic with others, even though the things I was talking about weren’t wrong, and should even be brought into the open.”

“Nevertheless, if I didn’t hold the film festival or screen this film, I would feel guilty for the rest of my life, because it would go against my values. I don’t want to feel guilty for bowing my head down to stupidity. When it was the time to hold the event, I discussed with my Thai colleague whether we should ask the audience not to discuss topics sensitive to the Thai military and forbid recordings or photos of the event, because it could be dangerous to me and the colleagues who would return to Thailand after their studies.”

“After Pruay’s movie ended, the whole room was silent. Everyone was speechless.”

“During the discussion time, we agreed that people should be able to discuss whatever they want. A space of freedom is rare for us, therefore, everyone should be able to say and ask whatever they want.”

“Most of the people attending were shocked at Pruay’s movie. They (and even myself) weren’t expecting such violence and cruelty. On the screen, we saw people who viewed other people as inhuman creatures, eyewitnesses of injustice, and the ‘opened eyes’ phenomenon. We saw all the events that made us understand what happened in Thailand in the past ten years in the space of a little over an hour.”

“The audience asked Pruay about the country’s future, his opinions on the current situation, his hopes for democracy, and what caused him to flee the country. I myself was really excited to see Pruay up-close after having only seen him through Facebook for a long time. When he was answering questions, it seemed to me like he didn’t have much hope. But still, I think that if he didn’t have any hope, he probably wouldn’t have the strength to make Democracy After Death.”

Remark

The ASEAN’s Friends group is made up of university students and those interested in the societies, cultures, and politics of countries in Southeast Asia. On 5 Nov. 2016, the group organized a “Screening of Thai Political Films”, which screened Democracy After Death, Memory | Soundless, With Respect, and Missa Marjat at Songkunghoe University. The event included Skype disucssions with directors who could not attend, including Pruay.