Chiang Mai bookstore owner Rodjareag Wattanapanit, who encourages free discussion and debate in her space, becomes the first Thai to win a US “Women of Courage” award
Thailand has long celebrated its successful men and women but it’s unlikely that the country’s current governing power – the National Council for Peace and Order – will be raising its collective glass to Rodjareag Wattanapanit, who last month become the first ever Thai to be recognised with the International Women of Courage Award by the US State Department. The award, which was established in 2007, honours courageous women around the world who selflessly fight for the greater good of society and Rodjareag certainly qualifies, having seen her independent bookshop shut down for about a year after the successful coup d’etat in 2014 for allowing free political discussion and twice being summoned for “attitude adjustment” by the ruling military.
Chiang Mai’s humble Book Re:public, which Rodjareag co-founded and owns, is no mere bookstore but an oasis for freedom of expression in a society under the thumb of a military regime where some fundamental rights are limited and those fighting for them are threatened by force and law.
“I’ve been following this path for more than 20 years,” the 40-something activist and bookseller tells The Sunday Nation. A graduate of Chiang Mai’s Payap University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Rodjareag started her working life as a tourist assistant in Mae Salong District, home to the Akha hilltribe people.
That tourism career lasted barely six months. Rodjareag, a native of Mae Hong Son and brought up in a home where her father, a Deputy District Chief, was constantly welcoming tribal people, hated seeing local Akha culture and spirit eroded by commercial greed and resigned from her post.
“I remember as a child waking up to a houseful strangers, all of them tribesmen or so-called marginal people. They were my dad’s friends. Unlike some government employers, my dad was always very friendly and never felt in the least superior to those people. Rather, he treated them all equally as fellow human beings,” she says.
Her next job with a non-governmental organisation was much more suited to her compassionate nature and helped her turn her efforts to empowering villagers in order to ensure the sustainability of the local ways, cultures, and the rapidly deteriorating environment surrounding them.
Among her jobs was a stint with the Centre for People and Forest which successfully introduced the idea of how the local people could help contribute to the preservation of the forests and which gained support from the general public.
The activist continued along her humanitarian path in the NGO world until 2004, when the rampant corruption under the government of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra could no longer be ignored.
“I began to touch upon bigger issues like national politics in 2004 or 2005 when people started to demonstrate against the Thaksin’s administration for its corrupt practices under the mask of public policies,” the award winner says.
That interest in politics gradually grew and reached its head, first in 2006 when the military staged a coup to dethrone Thaksin and then again in 2010 when red-shirts protesters were shot on the streets of Bangkok.
Though anti-Thaksin, Rodjareag says she is against the seizing of power by any means.
“The democratic process was interfered with and that’s a pity. Had the 2006 coup not taken place, society would have eventually seen Thaksin’s true colours and democracy could have developed properly” she says.
Rodjareag’s bedrock Book Re:public was a product of the rupture of Thai democracy arising from those historic events. The veteran activist says she felt a responsibility, as a member of the society, to at least provide a space for the kind of public discussions essential to a democratic society.
“I didn’t want us to be emotional at the expense of being rational. Society has to be led by reason and knowledge rather than hatred and prejudice,” she says forcefully.
And so the independent bookshop opened its doors in 2011 and has since been a hub for intellectual discussion among young people and academics.
Its work has not only become popular among people in Chiang Mai but it is now also recognised by activists and those interested in politics countrywide, who follow the activities at Book Re:public through such online outlets as YouTube.
Her efforts have quite naturally caught the eye of the military too and she has become a regular at the military-hosted “coffee parties”, as well as being summoned for attitude adjustment twice since 2014, events that led to her being nominated by the US Embassy in Bangkok to receive the women of courage prize.
Rodjareag admits that there is a great deal of pressure on Book Re:public and herself personally but says she considers it vital to carry on promoting human rights, freedom of expression, and democracy.
“I think we need to have the courage to stand up against repression. We do not necessarily need to be infringed or have it happen to us first. Even if there is only the slightest sign of rights infringement, we must immediately stand up and protect ourselves,” she says.
“It’s a matter of justice and injustice. There is no middle path here. If we remain neutral, we are essentially supporting the injustice,” she says, adding that she is determined to carry on her work despite the pressure put on her by the current regime.