I’ve been to Bangkok several times before, but I’ll admit to feeling a little daunted when I arrived in the Thai capital last week, alone and bone-weary from 30 hours of travel. The roar of tuk tuks and the heavy tropical heat all reminded me where I was—on the opposite side of the world from my family, where day was night, and it was my job as a journalist to observe, ask questions, and hopefully discern a story or two that was both interesting and accurate.
Thankfully, some help was waiting in the wings. I came to Thailand as part of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, funded by the U.S. State Department and managed by the Mansfield Center at The University of Montana. Last fall I hosted Candy Dechabuddharungsi, a Thai TV journalist, when she came to Montana. I helped her produce stories about the U.S. election, the local Hmong community, and the owner of a Thai food truck. Now I have the chance to visit Candy and other YSEALI fellows in Thailand—and to do some journalism of my own. And because of the quality of individuals the YSEALI program attracts, my notebook was already full of great contacts when I arrived.
My first point of connection was Gump Krittanon, an enthusiastic, 23-year-old film student from Southern Thailand. In 2015, Gump spent several weeks in Montana as a YSEALI academic fellow. Last year he guided a group of Montana high school students around Thailand. Gump and I spent a day on the Chao Phraya River, hopping aboard boat taxis, and stopping at glittering temples and savory-smelling food markets.
As we took in the graceful architecture of Wat Pho, and drank nutty, sweet nam tan sod—fresh palm syrup—at Wanglang Market, I learned a bit about Gump. He’s been filming a remote tribe who live in the jungle and caves of Southern Thailand. He’s a fan of the French documentary maker Nicolas Vanier. He stood shoulder to shoulder in the streets with thousands of fellow mourners after the Thai King died last October. And he genuinely loves and misses Montana and the friends he made there. Gump was proof of the life-changing power of international exchanges like YSEALI.
Next I met with Koreeyor Manuchae, a Thai human rights attorney that my wife had hosted during the YSEALI professional program in 2015. As we caught up over steaming bowls of noodles, curried chicken rotis, and a pot of tum yum kung (it was a big meal), Yor told me about her work. Her latest case involved a migrant from Myanmar who was killed when a car hit his bicycle. The man’s wife lives in a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border. The insurance company was refusing to pay out the man’s life insurance policy because his wife couldn’t prove her Thai identity. Yor said she was confident the insurance company would pay, and she was negotiating for the woman to receive the highest amount. But without Yor’s help, she probably wouldn’t have been paid at all.
Yor suggested I meet with Pornpen Khongkajornkiet, a human rights activist and law student. When I met with her, Pornpen was just leaving a meeting about transgender rights in Thailand. A transgender woman had recently gone missing and was later found dead. Pornpen was speaking out for these and other causes. She is currently facing a defamation lawsuit after exposing the torture of migrant workers in southern Thailand.
I met with another contact in Yor’s network—Sutharee Wannasiri—a human rights specialist for an NGO called Fortify Rights, who was speaking out for rubber-farming villagers in the northeast who were protesting a gold mine in their community. The company is using defamation lawsuits and other forms of judicial harassment to try to silence their dissent. But the village stands stronger and more unified than ever. I met some of them as they ate friend rice on the floor of a meeting hall in Bangkok.
“We’re small, and the company is big,” one woman told me. “But even if we are afraid, we have to continue. We can’t give up.”
A few days later I met up with Candy in the humming shopping center of Siam Square. We reminisced about our time together in Montana and talked about each other’s work. She gave me a package of gifts for her Montana host family. Later, she bravely drove me back to my hotel through rush-hour Bangkok gridlock in her little Ford Fiesta, which sports a Montana Griz decal on the window. The power of connection is strong between Montana and Thailand, and the YSEALI network here is clearly on the forefront of addressing contemporary human rights issues in the country.