By Jung Hae-myoung
On Jan. 16, 25-year-old Thai college student Chanoknan Ruamsap received an urgent phone call from her friend who said Ruamsap had been indicted for insulting the royal family and could be jailed for up to 15 years if caught.
Everybody advised her to leave her country. She had a few choices including Hong Kong, the Philippines and Korea ― countries that had signed the 1951 UNHCR protocol to accept refugees, and had lenient visa regulations.
Ruamsap landed in Korea the same day, and became the first Thai refugee recognized in the country, just 10 months after applying for refugee status.
"I was very grateful when I heard the news, because my friends said it was very hard to get permission in Korea," she told The Korea Times.
Thanks to the May 18 Memorial Foundation that supports young activists fighting for democracy around the world, she was able to find accommodation in Gwangju.
Before this, she was just an ordinary student at Chulalongkorn University with a passion for politics.
However, the political situation in her country was uncertain after a military coup in 2014, following which the army enforced extreme loyalty to the royal family.
In the midst of this, Ruamsap founded the New Democracy Movement in 2016, and shared a Facebook post from the BBC that criticized the Thai royal family ― an act which led to the indictment in January this year.
"After the coup d'etat, public assembly with more than five people was not allowed, and the military arrested and released us (activists) repeatedly when we demanded democracy. We were taken to military courts instead of civilian courts," she said.
The arrests were justified under the law of "Lese-majeste," which punishes a person who "defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent" with up to 15 years imprisonment
"Portraits of the royal family can be seen everywhere in Thailand, including schools, public offices, hospitals and even zoos, but Thai people do not realize these are created with their taxes," Ruamsap said.
"Insulting the Thai king is to turn one's back against the Thai public, because they are taught to love the royal family," she said.
Although some say the essential problem for Thailand is the military dictatorship, the royal family, or the law, Ruamsap believes "education" is the root cause. She says she could have been one of the people praising the king if she had not met certain professors at the university.
"I used to be a person who would not say anything that somebody would disagree with," she said. "But I started to learn how to organize my arguments logically which helped me to raise my voice and form an opinion."
Questions and debates were what liberated her. Ruamsap started to see that what she was taught in school was not the reality, and began to question a history that only praised kings and queens, excluding accounts about the struggle for democracy.
She said her experience as an exchange student in the U.S. made her realize how "people were produced."
"When I was 16, I went to America, and my home-stay mother was a devout Christian. I was born and raised in a Buddhist family," she said. Nearly 95 percent of the Thai population is Buddhist.
Ruamsap told her home-stay mother that she would help out in the church community in other ways rather than attend services, such as teaching toddlers songs and rhymes at Sunday school.
"While I was helping out, I saw how the church classes were divided into different age groups. Suddenly I could imagine how these children would grow up and go to the next level to become a Christian," she said.
"It seemed these children had no choice but to grow up as a Christian, as I was raised to become a Buddhist," she said. "It was similar how people are produced in society."
Her perspective on human rights also grew when she became a refugee.
"Back in Thailand, I often saw how Thais wanted to kill and get rid of the Rohingya refugees coming across the border," she said. For the past 10 months, Ruamsap experienced the same look from Koreans when she told them she was an asylum seeker.
"We don't want to flee the country at all, if we had a choice. Our family, friends… and everything we are born with are there. Refugees are forced by war, by politics and by life-threatening danger," she said.
Having worked as an activist for women's rights, democracy, and the poor, Ruamsap said she would continue such work in Korea.
"But my top priority at the moment is learning Korean," she said. "My friends say I have to learn Korean first before I can join in and help out," she added with a smile.