‘A better future than this’: a conversation with the love of Pai Dao Din

"That week I could visit him only once. Pai asked me if I had changed my mind about him. He said like he is a prisoner already but he said I’m still young and still have a better future than this."
 
 
“When you can't have what you want, the best you can do is not forget.” 
  
Ashes of Time (1994)
 
This sentence floats in my mind again as I sit transcribing an interview with a young woman from Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Law. She is the love of the activist Jatuphat ‘Pai Dao Din’ Boonpattararaksa.
 
Pai Dao Din is the activist presently imprisoned awaiting trial under a charge of violating Article 112 — Thailand’s lèse-majesté law — for sharing a BBC article on Facebook. He was the first person charged with this crime in the reign of King Vajiralongkorn. After a brief few days on bail, he was sent back to prison in December 2016 with all subsequent requests for bail denied. 
 
The line is from the Wong Kar-Wai film, ‘Ashes of Time’ (1994), itself based on the immortal ‘Condor Trilogy’ written by the Chinese author Jin Yong. Through the perspective of common warriors, the movie examines the complexities of the human heart, love, disappointment, melancholy and memories that do not leave us — yet, and this is the important thing, it is a movie about ordinary people.
 
I’m not sure how to explain to her the film’s connections to Pai. I suppose for one, like the film’s protagonists, Pai is fighting for justice. Another is that he is a ‘criminal’ of our generation. Upon reflecting further, another parallel is that — behind his smile that we see so often, behind his significance in Thai society, and behind the social stigma that surrounds him — Pai too possesses a humanity no more and no less than anyone else’s.
 
Pai’s girlfriend cannot reveal her name because her parents are government officials. They asked her not to mess with politics after her brother and six other students from the activist group Dao Din were arrested for protesting the 2014 coup.
 
I have now spoken with her many times. If I remember correctly, I first met her when I travelled to Khon Kaen after the August 2016 referendum to catch a scoop for which Pai was a source.
 
That day, Pai took me to a coffee shop before excusing himself to find his girlfriend. A little while later, he returned with a young lady. Without a doubt, she was beautiful and cute, with a sweet smile and mannerisms no different from any other university kid.
 
The important thing was that she was not an activist. I was looking at two people able to speak together, despite an age difference of some five years. They called each other ‘darling’.         
 
That day, Pai and his love ordered a dessert that I learnt afterwards is called ‘honey toast’. For drinks, they ordered cocoa and green tea smoothies. I sat interviewing Pai while she sat beside listening quietly. During that first meeting, we almost didn’t speak at all.
 
But as things turned out, we were to meet again after the courts accepted a case against Pai for sharing the BBC article. Pai was in custody and the prosecutors opposed bail. This time, Pai would not be joining our conversation.  
 
Each time I travelled to Khon Kaen to report on Pai’s case, I always saw her helping Pai’s mother and father in the work of coordinating Pai’s visitors. Though she was no longer able to visit Pai regularly when the semester at Khon Kaen University began, she went to see him whenever she had the opportunity. Seeing Pai for at least five or ten minutes a day is good enough, she said. 
 
She tells me she knew Pai from before university. Pai was a friend of her brother and she had visited the Dao Din headquarters many times.
 
“I also don’t know how we started liking each other. At first it wasn’t really a big thing. I was still a child. All I felt was that I was happy talking to him, so I talked with him more. At first I didn’t tell anybody we were dating. I fancied him because he was a nice guy. He could be everything for me: a friend, an elder brother, a source of advice. He was all of it. But when others looked at him, they saw him as an activist. Each day, there was talk only about politics, about the villagers’ problems. But in reality, he’s also a normal young adult. He is a warm person who likes collecting details. He knows what problems I have, what I like, what I don’t like. I know he feels the same.”
 
She explains that the Pai many people know is an activist, a fighter for justice, someone who likes talking, and who likes discussing village injustices with friends and anybody who gets to know him. But with her, Pai rarely spoke about these things, and only when she asked. She thinks that Pai understood she wasn’t an activist. He perhaps wanted her to understand the issues on her own terms, rather than by force or pressure.
 
“I haven’t been an activist with them, I’m an average young adult. I got to know him because it was fun. We chatted together. I met his friends. But I also took in things. I saw what they did, what they talked about until I began to understand what Pai was doing and what was happening with the villagers. Sometimes I came back and sat alone and questioned why we were studying the law every day, when studying the law is one thing but dealing with reality is a completely different thing.”
 
I ask her how Pai was on 22 December 2016, the day he found out there was an appeal to revoke his bail. She says Pai didn’t show he was worried. That day, he only told her that he would have to report to the court. He said she didn’t have to come with him because no matter what happened, he would return to her. They made a promise that they would go travelling together in the new year after the court procedure was finished.
 
But now it is Valentine’s Day and the two have not yet had the chance to go travelling together.
 
“Like many people Pai doesn’t often speak about his private life. He usually keeps it to himself because he believes he can handle the strain and his feelings. He never really spoke about these things to me. But I could tell he was more stressed each time. Before he had to go to court, some nights he talked in his sleep like someone was coming to hurt him. Sometimes he tries to say that last night he had a nightmare”
 
She later heard from a friend that on the morning Pai went to court and had his bail revoked, they went together to a coffee shop because he wanted to take in the atmosphere. She says it was as if Pai knew there was a chance he would be in jail for a very long time.
 
Still, he never spoke about this possibility to her. Perhaps he didn’t really believe it yet and still had faith in the justice system. In the end, Pai’s right to bail was withdrawn.
 
“I’m under strain too, because normally on any day that Pai wasn’t out doing activist work, he was always with me. Many people probably don’t think he is someone to be stuck on his girlfriend. If there was anything the matter with us, we always discussed it together. Whenever he went to Bangkok, he always video-called me to chat, although he didn’t like doing such things before. But now we can’t be together like before. I’m stressed and so is he because he says he wishes we could meet every day, if only to see each other’s face.”
 
She proceeds to muse that many people who visit Pai notice that he is always smiling. But she thinks her love’s current smile is different from before. She says that people can force a smile, but that the eyes always betray the truth. Those who really know Pai feel too that something has changed in him.  
 
Pai’s father, Viboon, agrees that his son is someone who smiles easily. Whatever problems Pai encounters, he keeps smiling. He is still smiling, even though this time he has been accused of violating Article 112. Many people who meet Pai perhaps think his smile is a rebellion against authorities.
 
But this may not be the case, Viboon tells me. No matter how tough the going gets, Pai would keep smiling because that’s the sort of person he is. But a father can tell when the expression in his son’s eyes changes. 
 
 
Pai always smiles even behind jail bars
 
I ask her how she manages her own feelings when dealing with a situation like this. She is still and quiet for a long time before replying. She doesn’t know how to reply. With the arbitrariness of Thailand’s justice system, the only thing that gives her answers now is superstition.
 
“We see how the justice system is, right? If you ask the lawyers or anyone else, no one can estimate what will happen. I’ve had to rely on magic and fortune tellers who predict the future. I don’t know if it is true or not but it is something that gives me some hope. The fortune teller says that there is a chance Pai will be released but it may be a while. At least this gives me a little encouragement, even though I don’t know what percent accuracy the prediction has.” 
 
Besides fortune tellers, what helps to calm her worries most is visiting Pai as often as she can. When Pai was previously imprisoned after the referendum, she would look at old photos of him on her smartphone when she could not visit.
 
But since then that smartphone was broken, and the photos it contained of her and Pai are gone. She muses that it is as if the memories have been lost too. And she doesn’t know when she will next have the chance to take another photo with Pai.
 
“Once I didn’t have a ride. You know that my dormitory is far from the prison, right? When I don’t have a ride, I have to take three minibuses. I don’t have enough money to go by taxi. Sometimes I can’t make it to go with Pai’s mother. And that was a time when there were many friends, teachers and people from Bangkok visiting Pai so I didn’t want them to wait for me. That week I could visit him only once. Pai asked me if I had changed my mind about him. He said like he is a prisoner already but he said I’m still young and still have a better future than this.”
 
I’m not sure what Pai means by ‘a better future than this’. But in the hour or so that I have sat speaking to Pai’s love, it has been obvious that ‘a better future than this’ is one where Pai is released to be near her once again. 
 
 
This story was written by Taweesak Kerdpoka and translated into English by Cat Yen