January 19, 2014 00:00 By Chanon Wongsatayanont
Wararat Krasae and Ake Auttagorn do not belong to any side of the Thai political divide but are defending their right to freedom of expression
For more than five years, Thai politics have been dominated by pro- and anti-government demonstrations, with protesters periodically turning city landmarks into seas of yellow and red. More recently, the colours of the national flag have being filling the streets to a soundtrack of ear-piercing whistles while, at other locations, opposing groups have gathered to call for caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, to continue her fight.
Thailand, it seems, is irreconcilably polarised.
As the divide deepens between the two groups, those who don’t belong to either have begun to create “neutral” or non-partisan groups. Among them is the white-shirt group, which has been organising candle lighting events for peace. However, in just a few weeks, the “whites” have lost their reputation for being truly non-partisan.
During a candle lighting event on January 10 to call for peace and support for the election on February 2, office worker Wararat Krasae was surprised to be picked on by some fellow white-shirted demonstrators.
They apparently attacked the 24-year old because they believed her banner read “Kill Thaksin”. Feathers flew and they accused her of being a PDRC protester who had “come to the wrong place”, and shouted for her to “go back to Rajdamnoen”.
Yet Wararat isn’t part of any political group and she certainly doesn’t judge people on the basis of their political preferences. All she wants is an election and an end to the political conflict.
“I joined the white shirt rally as I thought it was of the few places where I could freely express my views,” she explains.
She had earlier attended gatherings organised by YaBasta Thailand, which launched its candle lighting activity on December 27, and by the Ants’ Power, which called on people to wear white shirts and carry white balloons on January 5.
Despite the attack, Wararat would like to continue to show her support for an election by joining other non-partisan groups, though she admits she is apprehensive.
“I’m afraid there is nowhere left in Thailand for anyone to freely express their opinions,” she says.
Ake Auttagorn has faced similar criticism.
He made the news last week when he interrupted the press conference of the Democrat party, which is boycotting the election, holding a sign reading “Respect my vote” and blowing a whistle at its leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.
As he was being escorted out, Abhisit publicly cited him as “an ‘example of why we need reform” and called him “an example of the opponents of the Democrat Party who do not allow us to speak. Ake was incensed, replying “I’m not from the opposition. I’m a citizen!”
That same citizen turned up again last Thursday, this time at the meeting on political reform hosted by Yingluck and attended by 25 private organisations. His banner once again read “Respect my vote”.
Ake, 34, who works as a marketing manager, says he doesn’t belong to any political group but is determined to stand up for what he thinks is right. He adds that an election is “the last and only viable solution to the current situation because everyone equally deserves the right to express their views”.
“This is what I fight for and, if anyone brands me as a red shirt [for supporting the election], I won’t quarrel with them but this is my own view,” he says.
He claims that he only blew his whistle at Abhisit because he felt that Abhisit falsely accused him of belonging to the opposition rather than listening to what he was saying.
Ake and Wararat have both been slammed on the social media for their actions, though the reasons for the criticisms have varied according to political beliefs of the posters. However, both are also regarded as victims who have been unjustly branded for belonging to a political group when all they wanted was to express their own opinions.
The backlash has convinced Wararat that there needs to be a reform in the way people think before the country can even tackle political reform. “Everyone should be able to express themselves freely without bias or prejudice,” she insists, adding that everyone should equally be permitted to explain their point before being labelled as belonging to a group.
Ake believes that bias is inevitable and begins when one group brands itself as good and the other as evil. He points to the way in which the PDRC hurls insults at the caretaker government and its supporters as an example of inciting such prejudice.
“I never call for anyone to die because we are all people. Imagine if the people we are insulting are our sons or mothers, would you still be calling them all those names?” he asks.
Such hate-invoking tactics, he says, lead nowhere and end up with each group calling the others stupid, misguided and evil. Now, after spending time with protesters from multiple groups, he has concluded that “we are all just people”. Thus to protect each individual’s right, he is making the call to “Respect my vote”.
The slogan has caught on and many social media users have replaced their profile picture with one that shows them clutching a sign reading “Respect my vote”.
Ake and Wararat might be coming under fire for their beliefs, but they have also created more space for other non-partisans to come out and have somewhere to stand.