‘We are the last targets’: Thai dissident band in Laos fear death

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Taking turns to keep watch at their hideout in Laos, the four members of the self-exiled Thai activist folk band “Faiyen” believe they are on a hit-list like eight fellow dissidents who have already disappeared.

Laos, which neighbours Thailand, became a haven for some of the most outspoken Thai anti-junta activists after a 2014 coup.

All were vituperative in their condemnation of the Thai junta which last month cemented its long hold on power as its chief was elected prime minister by a pro-army bloc in parliament.

Others have been accused of criticising the Thai monarchy, an unassailable institution protected by one of the world’s toughest royal defamation laws.

“There’s not a single night that we can sleep. A dog’s howl gives us the chills,” lead singer Romchalee Sombulrattanakul – known as Yammy – told media from an undisclosed location in Laos.

Faiyen, “Cold Fire” in Thai, are well known in pro-democracy circles for satirical lyrics taking a stab at Thailand’s politicos and the palace, and are among more than 80 dissidents to flee the kingdom since the last coup.

The quartet left Thailand to avoid a summons by the junta and could face the dreaded lese majeste law if they return.

“All the firebrand activists have gone, disappeared,” she added. “We are the last targets.”

Since 2016, five of the best-known activists have disappeared from their homes in Laos in what Faiyen believe is a carefully orchestrated campaign of elimination by shadowy arch-royalist groups.

The corpses of two of them were found in December in the Mekong river which bisects the countries – their stomachs stuffed with concrete. They were identified earlier this year.

Rights groups believe three others have been deported from Vietnam to Thailand -although both governments deny any knowledge of their whereabouts.

“Faiyen members have every reason to be fearful for their lives,” Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch, told media.

He added the group is dependant on Laos to provide safety arrangements that are “clearly insufficient”.

Faiyen are campaigning to abolish Thailand’s harsh lese majeste laws, under which anyone who insults or defames the monarchy can be jailed for up to 15 years on each charge.

“We represent the voices of the Thai people who are being suppressed and cannot speak their truth,” said band leader Trairong “Khunthong” Sinseubpol.

Inside Thailand, years of political polarisation has seen withering pressure exerted on anyone calling for reform of the monarchy – and the generals who buttress its power.

Over the border in communist Laos, where some authorities have sympathy for the Thai activist cause, Faiyen were for a while given the space to livestream their political commentary and music.

“We could say what we want… but then the hunting started,” added Trairong, 55.

The group has received innumerable online death threats, while the bodies in the Mekong gave a chilling reminder of the worst outcome.

There have been no arrests linked to those killings and officials and media inside Thailand have shied from speculation over who carried out the macabre murders.

The band now fear time is running out for them too and are seeking asylum in a European country.

“There might be no tomorrow,” a tearful Yammy told.