By Phuriphat Sangkhapat
“When I closed my eyes, there was anger and tears.”
Romchalee Sombulrattanakul, known as Yam Faiyen, used those words to describe her one-way flight to France, where she lived for the past year as a political refugee.
According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, since the 2014 military coup, there have been at least 104 political refugees from Thailand living in the region and Europe.
The 33-year-old Romchalee is a singer of Faiyen, a controversial pop-folk band with songs critical of Thailand’s government and the monarchy institution.
“Fai” means fire, while “yen” means cold. The band’s name refers to a type of firework at once hot and cold, shining bright light, while slowly extinguishing itself with coldness.
The name is an allegory of Thailand’s feudalism.
Questioning the norm
Romchalee grew up in a conservative family where she always felt alienated.
“My family would make merits and put a lot of cash in the donation envelope. But when it comes to giving five or ten baht to a beggar, they would say: these people have hands and feet, they should work,” she explained.
“I thought to myself, what about the monks? Why do we give monks food and other things? Why do we have to crawl and wai them as if we are slaves?”
“Aren’t we all human beings?”
In 2005, she voted for the first time, casting her ballot for Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party. A year later, a military coup ousted him from power.
“When the 2006 coup happened, I was still young and inexperienced. I was apathetic. All I cared about was work, personal life, and family. I didn’t have time to think much of anything else.”
In the 2012 election, she voted for Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party. Two years later, Yingluck suffered the same fate as her older brother.
“I thought to myself: Why does this keep happening? Why do soldiers do this?” Romchalee said.
It was then that she decided to educate herself about politics. She would read literature about political systems, democracy, dictatorships, and military coups, mostly from the internet.
In 2010, musician Trairong Sineubpol formed Faiyen intending to use music as political activism against the conservative establishment. Other members include Nitiwat Wannasiri and Parinya Cheewinkulpathorn.
The band would often perform at leftist and red-shirt stages.
Following the 2014 military coup, the junta government issued their arrests, and the band fled to Laos.
In 2014, Romchalee worked as a cellphone promoter. Following the military coup, she became politically active. She sang a covered version of the folk band The Commoner’s “บทเพลงของสามัญชน” (“Song of the Common People”) and posted it on social media. Trairong saw the cover and invited her to become the female lead singer.
At first, she hesitated. But in 2015, following many death threats due to her political opinions, she joined the band in Laos.
From across the border, Faiyen released the song “ขันแดงแสลงใจ” (“The Bitter Red Bowl”) that criticized the government’s usage of Article 116 (sedition) against a woman who posed in a photograph with a red bowl donated by the Shinawatra siblings.
“I was fortunate to have done that song in Laos. If I were in Thailand, I would not have escaped in time,” Romchalee said.
At the time, General Prayut Chan-o-cha said the song is a danger to national security. Meanwhile, the junta government summoned the band for questioning.
The band faced charges ranging from violation of the junta’s order and Article 112, lese majeste.
For four years, Romchalee and Faiyen lived and worked in Laos, producing anti-government music and participating in political activism until Thai political refugees in the region started to disappear.
According to Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw), since 2016, nine political refugees have been made to disappear.
“There’s only Faiyen left. They would come after us,” she said after hearing the news that activist Chucheep Chiwasut, better known as “Uncle Sanam Luang,” and his assistants disappeared in 2019. They were political refugees residing in Vietnam.
But Faiyen had problems escaping elsewhere.
“There was no money,” said Romchalee. “All we had were donations from friends who believe in democracy. It was just enough money to live on.”
“We couldn’t pay a million baht for fake passports.”
Escaping to France
In June 2019, the hashtag #SaveFaiyen trended on Twitter.
A network of Thai political activists living in Europe called the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) contacted the French embassy in Laos to lend a hand to the members of Faiyen.
Within days, the embassy granted them an entry visa (laissez-passer). Within two months, Romchalee and others were on a flight to France, via Guangzhou, China.
“We were very nervous when Chinese immigration was checking our documents. We thought they might not let us transit,” Romchalee recounted the experience.
“When I sat down on my seat in the plane, I felt relieved. But also, I felt angry as to why other political refugees did not have the chance to escape as we did.”
In France, her life began at zero. She had to learn a new language, a new culture, and to find work. At the same time, she still follows Thailand’s political development and is active on social media.
“All I want is for other activists to not suffer the same fate as me,” she said.
Asked how she feels about the current pro-democracy protests, Romchalee said she’s happy that the struggle continues.
She referred back to the lyrics from the song, “The Bitter Red Bowl”:
“Long live the people / the country moves forward / down with dictatorship.”