Life for a Thai in exile: Aum Neko in France

Since the coup on 22 May 2014, about a hundred pro-democracy activists have fled the country. Most were involved in the red-shirt movement. Most decided to flee after they were summoned by the junta. Most also face lèse majesté charges. Seeing the military court handing down severe verdicts in lèse majesté cases with little likelihood of getting bail and no appeals allowed, their chance of walking free in the Kingdom of Thailand is slim and it is no wonder that leaving the country is a better option. But abandoning life, jobs, education, property, and loved ones in Thailand and starting all over in a new country is very difficult. 
 
The exiles went to a few destinations in Southeast Asia, Europe, New Zealand and the USA. France is one. In the first of a series, Prachatai’s Thaweeporn Kummetha tells the story of a provocative transgender student activist who goes by the name ‘Aum Neko.’ Thaweeporn visited Aum in a city in France she asked not to be revealed and spent some time with her in April along with two other Thai exiles -- Jaran Ditapichai, a leftist and veteran political activist, and a former historian from Thammasat University. The following article is written from Thaweeporn’s perspective and you can watch the video interview below. 
 
 
 
 
Aum’s real name is Saran Chuichai, a male name she is not proud of. Closure of the infamous “Aum Neko” Facebook page was forced after the social media company found that Aum Neko was not her real name. Aum opened a new Facebook profile with a name cannot be revealed here due to the lèse majesté law. Aum became well-known to the public in 2012 when she posted a picture of herself in a sexually provocative pose at the Pridi Banomyong statue at Thammasat University with a message “What is love and infatuation? Thailand has no law barring us from insulting Pridi because everyone is equal.” The picture caused an uproar and sanctions by the Thammasat community. She caused an uproar again in September 2013 with a poster advocating the abolition of university uniforms by portraying students in uniform simulating various sexual acts. 
 
 
Aum Neko in a sexually provocative pose at the Pridi Banomyong statue at Thammasat University in 2012.
 
 
Aum Neko was behind the posters advocating the abolition of university uniforms by portraying students in uniform simulating various sexual acts. The university ordered the posters to be taken down a day after they were placed around the campus
 
 
As a transgender, the 21-year-old activist has been forced to wear a male student uniform almost all her student life. At Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Education, her gender, sexual orientation and expression were not considered acceptable for future teachers and she was forced to wear a male uniform. She left Chula for the relatively greater freedom of Thammasat University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts where she majored in German. At Thammasat, she challenged the conservative forces who were advocating compulsory uniforms by wearing sexy and provocative outfits around the campus. Because of her provocative acts and Facebook posts, there was a campaign within the Thammasat Community to fire her. The last straw was when she and fellow student activists in December 2012 tried to raise a black flag to replace the Thai national flag at the iconic Dome building of Thammasat to symbolically protest against Thammasat Rector Somkid Lerdpaitoon’s alleged support for the anti-election movement. This led the university to suspend her from studying for two years. 
 
 
Aum, Sirawit and other student activists try to raise a black flag in December 2012 to replace the Thai national flag at the iconic Dome building of Thammasat to symbolically protest against Thammasat Rector Somkid Lerdpaitoon’s alleged support for the anti-election movement
 

Aum Neko, Sirawit Serithiwat (left) and Kittisan Utsahapradit (right) are leading members of the Dome Front Agora student activist group from Thammasat University. After the coup, Aum fled Thailand, while Sirawit faced charges for protesting against the coup makers.

 

Outside the university, she was very active in advocating the abolition of Article 112 and other pro-democracy activities. In 2013 a yellow-shirt TV host filed a lèse majesté complaint against her.
 
After the coup, on 9 June 2014, the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) summoned her to report in along with other red-shirt activists, many of them also now in exile. The risk of a harsh jail term handed down by a military court for lèse majesté and the fact that she would be forced into a male prison made her decide to leave the country. This was a tough choice for her because she had to abandon her undergraduate study where only a year was left.
 
 
Aum Neko joined a gathering in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, Siam Square, Bangkok, against the military and the prospect of a military coup on 20 May 2014 after Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, then Army Chief, imposed martial law in the country.
 
 
An arrest warrant for her was issued for not reporting on 13 June 2014. 
 
She fled to neighbouring countries before flying to France in late October. During a transit stop in Seoul, South Korean immigration police were waiting for her at the airbridge from the plane. The police held a roster of Thai ‘criminals’ wanted by the Thai authorities. Besides her name on the S list are, Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Suda Rangkupan, a former Chulalongkorn University lecturer and red-shirt activist. Aum said she explained to the police about Thailand’s political situation and compared the situation of the dictatorship in Thailand to that of North Korea before the police let her board the flight to France. 
 
After Aum arrived safely in France, she produced several video clips attacking the Thai Royal Family. In one clip, Aum performed an activity defaming Thai King and Queen at the spot where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed by guillotine at Place de la Concorde.
 
I had met Aum once but never talked to her. After knowing that she would pick me up at the airport, I felt a bit afraid of her because of her fierce and provocative character that I saw in the media. However, that seemed to be just what she is on TV and social media. In person, she was sweet and polite. 
 
Aum has adapted very well to life in France. She is an expert on public transportation and the routes in the city where she lives. She can also speak basic French which is enough for everyday use. 
 
Aum gives top priority to learning languages. Although she lives on a very modest income and has to think about every euro she spends, she chose to invest in language courses because that will determine her future in a French university and jobs afterward. She studies French every workday in the morning and studies German in the afternoon. She is now at the A2 level in French and C1 level in German. 
 
Moreover, Aum seems to enjoy living in a country where there is such a vibrant activist community and regular demonstrations. She energetically told me about French politics and the political activities she has joined. Unsurprisingly, she is very active on migrants, women and gay issues and has joined activities held by the activist groups there. 
 
 
Aum Neko (right) and Jaran Ditapichai (second left) joined the May Day demonstration in Paris on 1 May 2015. Aum’s placard (in French) reads “Free Somyos (Prueksakasemsuk) and lèse majesté prisoners. Jaran’s placard reads “Save the Thai workers from military dictatorship.”
 
 
Nevertheless, among the three exiles, Aum is in the most difficult financial situation. Aum has very few contacts with her family in Bangkok due to safety concern and she has to work hard to feed herself. In the first few months in France, Jaran helped her connect with red shirts in France who let her stay at their places for free. Aum stayed at one place about a month or two before moving to another. After things settled down, Aum started to find jobs, such as babysitting, to be able to stand on her own feet.
 
Aum is very strict about her budget. She eats only McDonald's and French bread that costs her about three euros a meal. “Aum likes McDo,” she told me when I asked if she got bored with eating junk food every day. She said she could eat anything and she liked junk food. I however think she is trying to economize. She just moved in to a shared apartment a few weeks before I visited her and she just started to learn how to cook to save even more money. 
 
 
Aum Neko holds placard (in French) reading “Feminist against Dictatorship in Thailand” during a demonstration to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March 2015 in Paris. 
 
I found that Aum is attractive to French guys after I spent some amount of time with her. There are a couple of times when French waiters came to flirt with her. One of them asked for her phone number. Aum will tell them her name is ‘Mimi’ because Francophones have difficulty pronouncing Aum. She told me her Mimi is short for ‘mignon’, which means ‘cute’ in French. Thai men can tell that she is, and see her as, katoey, but French men maybe can’t, and see her as a woman. I also believe something about her character attracts French men, but I haven’t lived long enough in France to tell.  
 
Although Aum does not live a comfortable life, and has it rather tough, she looked cheerful all the time we were together. She also keeps the “Aum Neko” concept by imitating a cat’s crawl and uttering “meaw meaw” occasionally, even in the metro. 
 
Aum looks thin and her skin looks very dry. I was afraid that she was being too thrifty that she hadn’t bought any moisturizer, so I gave her a bottle. Despite the cold weather of France’s early spring, Aum wore quite a revealing outfit, but less sexy than when she was in Bangkok. On some nights she was shaking from the cold, but she still walked me to the hotel. 
 
Aum told me she wants to study French literature in a French university which requires a high proficiency in French. She believes her ability to speak four languages will in the future be a valuable asset in finding a job in France. 
 
Aum has openly become a republican since she left the Kingdom of Thailand. She however does not have high aims about the political future of Thailand. She just hopes that Thai society will be more tolerant of republican ideas like the UK, where royalists and republicans live peacefully together and people can openly talk about republican ideology. Asked when she began to be interested in this ideology, Aum said it started when she took a course on the Thai monarchy and society at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science, which opened up new perspectives to her about various types of governing systems. 
 
Talking about her long-range plans, I asked if there was any prospect of her coming back to Thailand.  Aum said she may think about it after the next King’s reign and when Article 112 or lèse majesté is abolished. 
 
“Aren’t you missing home?” I asked. “Not really,” she said. “It was the right decision to run because to live in a society where you have to keep your own eyes and ears closed is something I couldn’t stand; it’s repulsive.”
 
Aum Neko’s photo for Femen Sweden

 

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The content was modified on 6 November 2015.