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Thai Dissident Musicians Celebrate Getting French Haven

This screen grab from video shows Faiyen band members (from L to R) Nithiwat "Jom" Wannasiri, Worravut "Tito" Thueakchaiyaphum, Romchalee "Yammy" Sombulrattanakul and Trairong "Khunthong" Sinseubpol, July 9, 2019, at an undisclosed location in Laos.

Members of a Thai folk music group who feared for their lives because of their fiercely antiestablishment songs are celebrating this week after being admitted to France to seek refugee status.

The band Faiyen fled to Thailand's neighbor, Laos, after a military government took power in Bangkok in 2014. Dozens of dissidents, some fearing arrest under a law mandating prison terms for criticism of the country's monarchy, fled to Laos and Cambodia, another neighboring country, but few were able to travel further because of a lack of travel documents or money.

Several dissidents who continued their political activities online after fleeing to Laos were killed or disappeared, spreading fear they had been targeted by Thai royalists.

Faiyen, who lived together in houses in and around the Laotian capital, Vientiane, said they received constant death threats and in recent months issued urgent pleas for help to move to a safer refuge.

Their fear increased after three activists who tried to flee Laos by crossing into Vietnam in January disappeared. According to rights groups they were arrested and secretly extradited to Thailand, but the authorities in Vietnam and Thailand have denied any knowledge of the affair. Faiyen then began a social media campaign which received widespread attention and support in May.

Faiyen and their supporters said Tuesday that the group's members arrived last week in Paris.

”Faiyen members are now rescued from the acute danger they faced in Laos — to begin new lives in France with the dignity, liberty, equality and sister-brotherhood that they fought for with their lives,” Junya Yimprasert, a Thai political exile who helped the group move, said on her Facebook page. “Right now, our plan is to keep pushing the French government for the Faiyen members' political refugee status. We have to show them that if Faiyen were to be sent back to Thailand, there would be nothing waiting for them but death.”

Junya acknowledged that attaining refugee status could take months.

She said the group's members would continue their political activism, especially against Thailand's lese majeste law under which offenders face prison terms of up to 15 years for insulting the monarchy.

The band plans to hold a protest in front of the Thai Embassy in Paris to condemn the deaths and disappearances of their fellow exiles in Laos, followed by a concert on the Place de la Republique, “a park synonymous with democracy,” Junya wrote.

This screen grab from video footage taken July 9, 2019 shows Faiyen band member Trairong "Khunthong" Sinseubpol speaking during an interview at an undisclosed location in Laos.
This screen grab from video footage taken July 9, 2019 shows Faiyen band member Trairong "Khunthong" Sinseubpol speaking during an interview at an undisclosed location in Laos.

Trairong Sinseubpol, one of the band's members, said in a phone interview that the process of applying for political refugee status took them about two to three months before they were granted permission to travel to Paris. But they were unable to act immediately because they did not have enough money to buy plane tickets. Eventually, they were aided by Miles4Migrants, a charity created to donate frequent flyer miles to book flights that bring refugees to their new homes.

The issue of safety of Thai political exiles was highlighted recently when Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai foreign ministry official who became an outspoken critic of the country, reported that he was attacked in the middle of the night in his home in Japan.

Pavin, who said the unknown assailant sprayed him and his partner with a chemical substance that caused a burning sensation, is an associate professor at Kyoto University. He believes he was targeted for political reasons, but Thai military and government officials deny involvement with attacks on him or any other exiles.