Haruthai and Mind: Two women on two sides of the conflict
When Thailand’s rising political conflict went international outside two embassies last week, two women with opposing viewpoints were leading the way.
Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon, a 25-year-old student, led several thousand anti-government protesters to the German embassy on October 26 to request a probe of the King’s visits to Germany. His Majesty is known to have spent a considerable amount of time each year in Bavaria.
The following day, 46-year-old singer Haruthai “Au” Muangbunsri showed up in front of the US embassy with a smaller crowd of some 20 supporters to demand that Washington “stop interfering in Thai politics”.
With 21 years between them, the two female protest leaders embody the generational divide underlying Thailand’s political struggle, which is pitting pro-democracy youth against their pro-establishment seniors.
The German embassy opened its doors to Patsaravalee and two other protesters and accepted their petition. According to a German government source quoted by Reuters, Germany does not believe the Thai monarch has violated the ban on conducting state business while on its soil.
Thai police took legal action against Patsaravalee for leading protesters to the German embassy. The young activist remains unfazed, though, continuing to protest for Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha to resign, the Constitution to be made more democratic and the monarchy to be reformed.
“Legal pressure and lack of understanding from the government side will not weaken our demands or power,” said Patsaravalee, adding that the only peaceful way out of the conflict was for all sides to come together and talk.
Haruthai, however, thinks otherwise. She believes a disinformation campaign is being conducted to undermine the monarchy, which she and other royalists see as a core unifying force in Thailand. Her group, Thai Pakdee, is also opposed to any move to amend the charter.
Yet, despite their vastly different stances, Patsaravalee and Haruthai have one thing in common. Both are determined to fight for their cause no matter what.
Rising star in protesters’ camp
A civil-engineering undergraduate at Mahanakorn University of Technology, Patsaravalee had no interest in politics until 2015. Her political awakening came while viewing a clip of university students being forcefully arrested for taking part in a peaceful gathering to mark the first anniversary of the 2014 coup.
“That clip had a significant impact on me,” she recalled, adding that the “depressing” scene made her wonder why authorities took such extreme measures to deal with peaceful student protesters.
“I now realise that politics has affected every phase of my life,” she said.
Soon after coup-maker Prayut took control of the country, her family was hit by financial problems. Her father’s construction business came close to folding and her mother’s cosmetics business suffered a sharp dip.
“Having no job for a long while took a toll on my father’s physical and emotional health,” she said.
Aware of how politics had a direct impact on people’s lives, Patsaravalee became convinced that citizens should be able to speak up against decisions that dictated their lives. She co-founded the Mahanakorn for Democracy Group to create a safe space for debate, including at pro-democracy protests.
Patsaravalee also co-founded Free Youth, the national protest group behind the big rally at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on July 18.Two weeks later on August 3, she made headlines with her first rally speech – dressed as a witch in keeping with the protest’s Harry Potter theme.
Articulate and good looking, Patsaravalee has since won a big following.
“I’m just an ordinary person, and this response surprised me,” she said. “I hope I can be an example of how ordinary people can come forward to speak up and call for democracy.”
However, Patsaravalee’s rise to prominence in the protests has come at a cost.
Already out on bail after being charged for participating in previous rallies, she was hit with a further charge last week related to the German embassy protest.
Yet, with strong backing from her fellow activists, Patsaravalee shows no sign of backing down in the push for a more democratic Thailand.
Born and raised in Bangkok, Haruthai’s first love was music.
Her music-loving parents liked to take her to concerts, inspiring her early interest in the performing arts.
However, life went downhill when her parents split up. She recalls being so poor while studying at the College of Fine Arts that she once gate-crashed a wedding party just so she could eat.
At 18, she gave up her studies to support her mother and younger brother by singing in clubs and bars.
Her big break came when she was spotted by singer Asanee Chotikul, who signed her up to his label, More Music.
In 1997, Haruthai debuted as lead singer of Paper Jam, before becoming a solo artist under GMM Grammy and winning several awards.
After making her name in showbusiness, Haruthai got interested in Muay Thai and decided to help her uncle run his boxing camp. She still operates a shop selling Muay Thai accessories.
Stars normally lose their sparkle over time, but Haruthai has managed to stay in the public eye longer than most. In 2006, she was elected as a Bangkok district councillor under the Democrat Party banner, and then re-elected in 2010.
When the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) took to the streets in 2013 to oust the Yingluck Shinawatra government, Haruthai joined them and began delivering speeches on stage. She remains a fierce defender of the PDRC to this day, despite its dissolution after 2014 coup.
Haruthai has also attracted a certain amount of ridicule, notably for insisting that a painting she bought in a flea market is a Van Gogh original. However, few doubt her political conviction and bravery.
The former singer has never shied away from the battle, and is now on the frontline mobilising royalists against protesters pressing for monarchy reform.
“Royalists are coming forward not to confront [protesters], but to prevent cases of lese majeste [royal insult],” she said.
Haruthai’s political convictions are rooted in her college years, when she joined the 1992 uprising against the regime of General Suchinda Kraprayoon. She was among the protesters detained during the bloody “Black May” crackdown that year, which saw Suchinda resign following the intervention of HM King Rama IX.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk