Rodjaraeg Wattanapanit, the co-owner of a Chiang Mai bookstore that has been an oasis for the free exchange of ideas in Junta-ruled Thailand, says she worries about growing censorship and diminishing freedoms since the generals seized power in May 2014.
Last month, the 49-year-old graduate of Payap University became the first Thai to be honored with the International Women of Courage Award by the U.S. State Department. She travelled to Washington to accept the honor alongside 13 other women from across the globe.
But since returning home from the United States, her Book Re:public bookstore was forced by the regime to cancel an event, during which people were going to discuss a controversial constitution drafted by a commission appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta’s official name.
In 2011, she co-founded the bookstore, which has since grown into a popular meeting place among intellectuals and scholars in northern Thailand.
Rodjaraeg is also the co-founder of Creating Awareness for Enhanced Democracy, or “Café Democracy,” an association dedicated to increasing political awareness, empowering citizens and encouraging the free exchange of ideas in society.
Since junta took power, Rodjaraeg has twice been summoned for so-called “attitude adjustment” sessions at military camps. She was required to sign documents promising to refrain from all political activities as a condition for her release.
Her bookstore, which was forced to close for a full year, resumed its role as a center for debate after its re-opened its doors in October.
“Since reopening at the end of last year, Book Re:public has become an indispensable public space for neighbors to gather, discuss societal problems, and develop solutions to Thailand’s political challenges,” the U.S. State Department said in presenting the award to Rodjaraeg.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted that reopening the bookstore was done at “great personal risk.”
In an exclusive interview with BenarNews, Rodjaraeg talked about her new award, her country’s future, as well as her concerns about the state of freedoms and human rights in Thailand under the junta.
BenarNews: What inspired you to open the bookstore?
Rodjaraeg: Before opening the bookshop, I was working for the Community Forest Support group, a non-governmental organization working on conservation and community forest issues.
When the Bangkok crackdown took place in 2010, I was deeply disturbed by the fact that members of the public were shot dead right in the heart of the capital. Even though we may hold opposing political views, nobody should have to lose their life for choosing to assemble to express their views or call out for their rights.
After that, my friend and I needed an answer to the question of why democracy in Thailand was going backward, not forward. So we turned our attention to reading books about Thailand’s history, politics and society.
We thought that access to this type of knowledge and understanding should be made available to society at-large. We realized that one way of accomplishing that would be to open a bookstore, which could also serve as a public forum for the exchange of ideas and civilized debate.
BenarNews: So the bookstore was primarily intended to serve as a public place for exchanging political knowledge and views?
Rodjaraeg: We wanted to establish a space for people to come and exchange ideas about any and all issues that affect their daily lives.
In the past, we held dialogues on just about every subject imaginable, including many that involved gender issues. It was not restricted to political debate.
But, at the same time, politics are almost always involved in these topics in one way or another. Whether it be dam construction or other environmental issues, capital investment or suggesting changes to the law as it relates to LGBT issues, it always comes down to the policies of the state.
Politics is all-encompassing. It is not just about administration.
BenarNews: What does this award mean to you?
Rodjaraeg: I accept this award on behalf of women and all people who are fighting for justice in Thailand. I am glad to have been recognized by the global community.
The United States has supported me and the principles of human rights, by bestowing this on me and other woman who uphold these principles, even if it means having to face the power of an authoritarian state.
BenarNews: What is the most challenging aspect of your work right now?
Rodjaraeg: The hardest part of the current situation is censorship and the loss of freedom of expression, which I hold as a basic human right.
The military government is still using Article 44, which gives it full power to either back or abolish projects with no public input whatsoever. We need to find a way out of this situation in the future.
BenarNews: Why were you twice invited by the military government to undergo “attitude adjustment”?
Rodjaraeg: The first time I was invited to the Kawila Army Camp, which is in Chiang Mai. The second time it was by the Army Central Command.
I asked my interrogator, “Why do I need to report myself twice?”
One high-ranking army officer told me it was because me and my work at Book Re:Public had an influence on the new generation of Thai society. I like to think of this as a sign of admiration.
BenarNews: After that did you have to change your approach or the goals of your work at the bookstore?
Rodjaraeg: Our bookstore was put under such pressure that we were first forced to move, and then we had to close down for a full year. We finally reopened in October 2015.
We certainly had to change our activities after that because we were no longer allowed to engage in activities that could be deemed critical of the state. But, at the same time, we continued to insist that we had not done anything wrong in the past.
We still wanted see our country progress and develop, so our goals remained the same as they always had been. That is to say we never held up democracy as some final, ultimate goal, but rather we wanted to see “the democratic process” advance with greater respect for human rights.
BenarNews: Do you still feel that you are under pressure from the state?
Rodjaraeg: I am still under pressure from the state because my activities are constantly monitored.
Before I was released from the army camp, I had to sign a memorandum of understanding stating that I would not take part in any political activities whatsoever. This will remain in effect until the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO) ceases to exist.
BenarNews: Do you have any hope for Thailand’s future?
Rodjaraeg: I can’t see much hope for positive change over the next five years, especially with a draft constitution that would [vest] so much power with the military, allowing them to continue to control politics through parliament, infringe on human rights and eliminate political opposition.
My only hope is that groups like ours, who oppose authoritarian rule by an unelected military government, will continue to grow in size and number.