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Freedom at a price: How a group of women raise millions to bail people out of jail

By Teeranai Charuvastra

Photography by Luke Duggleby

Run by four women, and supported by donors from all walks of life, the Will of the People Fund has been bailing out hundreds of Thailand’s activists, human rights defenders, and government critics who would otherwise have ended up in prison.

 

Cab driver Paisarn Junparn speaks of his activism like a student recounting his adventures in college years – with an unapologetic tone and a hint of pride. He’s helped ferry many protest leaders away from arrests on his taxi, he’s abandoned work to attend rallies, and he’s stood by the activists when police closed in around them in August last year. 

“Actually I could have just walked away that day. But I was angry at the cops, so I was shouting at them like, ‘Come on and arrest me if you dare!’” Paisarn, 49, recalled with a laugh. 

The police weren’t laughing. Paisarn and 30 others were arrested and charged with use of violence on law enforcement officials, a jailable offence. Their bail was at a whopping 3.1 million baht (about USD 81,300). The bond for Paisarn alone was 100,000 baht, cash up front, an amount that would leave a taxi driver like him struggling to pay. 

By his own account, Paisarn would have gone to jail if it weren’t for the Will of the People Fund, a charity that fundraised donations from sympathetic members of the public to help secure a bail release for hundreds of demonstrators facing legal actions, many of whom hail from a poor background. 

“I’m really thankful for the fund,” Paisarn said, his tone suddenly soft. “Otherwise I’d have ended up in prison, or else I’d have to struggle to beg someone to help bail me out. So I want to thank the people behind it, and I want to thank the public who made the donations.” 

Since the beginning of this year, the initiative has spent nearly 30 million baht posting bonds on behalf of hundreds of individuals accused of various charges, mainly for speaking out or joining rallies against the government. At the heart of this massive operation is a group of women who banded together to defend the rights of political dissidents to contest their charges outside captivity. 

They make an odd mix of a team, consisting of a book editor, a university lecturer, a young data programmer and – as fate would have it – the mother of an imprisoned activist. Despite the barrages of harassment and the daunting prospect of finding themselves in a showdown with judicial authorities, the women behind the Will of the People Fund say they’re determined to continue their mission. 

“We always publish the details of the donations we raised and spent, every baht and every satang, so that the people have trust in us,” said Ida Aroonwong, one of the women who started the program. “People can see that it’s their money being used for a good cause. And the people who donate to us also know that if they’re ever arrested some day, they’ll have this fund to rely on.” 

She continued, “There are also people who want to fight injustice but cannot join the protests, they send their money to us, because they know they can make an even bigger impact this way.”

Better call Ida 

Ida and her colleagues said the Will of the People Fund, or Ratsadorn Prasong in Thai, is a direct response to the 2014 military coup that brought General Prayuth Chan-o-cha to power. The junta quickly outlawed protests and authorised the military court to try civilians accused of flouting the ban. 

As dissent grew under the junta’s grip on power, the number of arrests skyrocketed, and so did the amount of bail money needed to guarantee their freedom. One such case was when dozens of demonstrators were rounded up in 2016 while calling for an election to be held. 

“It was a new phenomenon to see members of the public being prosecuted. A lot of them were just ordinary people. Previously, only activist leaders were arrested,” recalled Chalita Bundhuwong, a sociology lecturer at Kasetsart University who helped found the Will of the People Fund. 

Chalita and Ida, who have known each other since their university days, turned to the public for help. A joint bank account was set up and calls for donations went out on social media. The response was overwhelming. Millions were raised in matters of hours. For the two women, much of their daily life became a routine of managing the donated money and filing bail paperwork at the courthouse.   

The system is incredibly simple. When an activist is arrested or charged and needs to post bail that they cannot afford to pay, their lawyers would phone Ida, and she’d soon arrive at the court with the money. The Will of the People Fund also works closely with the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a network of civil rights lawyers that provides pro bono legal assistance to individuals facing political charges. 

“Back then, [the court] didn’t have internet banking yet, so I had to take out the cash at a bank first, and carry the hundreds of thousands of baht with me to the court. I was so afraid that I’d have been robbed on the way,” Ida recalled, laughing at the memory. 

“We’ll keep on insisting on our rights. We are holding up a mirror to them, so they can see for themselves what they’re doing.” 

“And the military court didn’t have a banknote counter, either. The clerks had to count the cash by hand. For example, in the case of Ja New’s mother (activist Sirawit Seritiwat, aka Ja New), her bond was set at 500,000 baht. I had to stand there and watch them count.” 

The election in 2019 – won by Prayuth – didn’t end the government’s repression of dissidents. When a popular opposition party was disbanded the following year, youth-led protests flooded the streets of Bangkok and escalated into a movement that demanded democratic reforms of the monarchy, breaking decades of taboo. In retaliation, the authorities filed charges against hundreds of protesters and critics, while bond money inflated to the range of millions.  

The most extreme case was when the court demanded 2,070,000 baht for two prominent activists Anon Nampa and Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, who had been in prison for weeks. As always, donations poured in within hours and even exceeded the amount required. 

“I’m surprised that there were always people willing to donate to the fund. I didn’t expect that we’d have raised this much money,” Chalita said. “Well, I understand their feelings, really. People see our fund as a way to express their resistance and discontent with the current system.” 

For their role in securing freedom for activists and monarchy critics, Chalita and her team often come under scrutiny from the authorities and their allies. 

Hardline monarchy supporters depict the fund as an encouragement of anti-monarchy activities and petition the police to open a criminal investigation on those behind it. Chalita herself came under vicious social media campaign that painted her as a sympathiser of separatists in southern border provinces, while Ida said she’s considering a surname change because of the immense pressure felt by her family. 

“We’ll keep on insisting on our rights,” Ida said. “We are holding up a mirror to them, so they can see for themselves what they’re doing.” 

A few good women 

Ida and Chalita spoke to HaRDstories from a house nestled in a maze of side streets in Bangkok’s Thonburi district. The building doubles as an office for the fund and a refuge for Ida; she recently had to move out of a downtown apartment because undercover police were shadowing her. 

After apartment staff told her that the officers asked for CCTV footage showing her leaving and coming home, along with the list of people who visited her, Ida said she’s had enough and left. 

“It’s better to just live here on my own, because I want them to come talk to me directly, ” Ida said. “I was upset that I had to move out, but I didn’t want to live with the mistrust.” 

Ida’s bedroom occupies the upper floor, while the living room downstairs is a working space – scattered with bank statements, court paperwork, and deposit slips – for the two volunteers who form the backbone of the operation, like keeping track of the bond money posted to the court and when they have to renew bail releases for certain defendants. 

“It’s very complicated and chaotic,” Ida said of the process. “We have to handle hundreds of cases at any given time. That’s why we set up a system to help both the suspects and their lawyers. We can’t afford any slip-ups. We don’t want to see someone going to jail because their bail isn’t renewed in time.” 

That bureaucracy falls to Namfon, the soft-spoken 25-year-old data programmer who prefers to go by her nickname because she wants to “keep a low profile.” Her colleague, Sureerat Chiwarak, is the very opposite. The former tax planner and accountant is now fully committed to the Will of the People Fund, and she’s not hiding it.

In fact, she wants the authorities to remember: she’s the mother of Parit, the monarchy reform advocate who languished in prison before the fund bailed him out. 

“I’ve seen that Ida has sacrificed so much to help my son, even though he’s not of her own blood,” Sureerat, 52, said. “That’s why I’m here and brought my knowledge about tax to help them. I believe that if we know the laws well, there’s no way they can cheat or bully us.” 

The irony isn’t lost on Ida, who is also a book editor and translator. 

“Having a mother of a defendant to help win freedom for other defendants is the best kind of revenge,” Ida said. “The system has pushed someone with such great expertise to work with us. We feel like we’re having a new mother to take care of us.” 

With Sureerat’s guidance and expertise, the fund has recently registered itself as a foundation. Ida and Sureerat said this was done not only to cement its position under the law but also to ensure transparency and formalise the workflow for future generations of volunteers to take their place. 

“If the tax auditors want to come scrutinise us, let them come, because I’ve been very meticulous with our records. I won’t let them have a single baht,” Sureerat said with a grin. “I want our foundation to continue long after I’m gone.”

…and justice for all? 

According to Ida, in the year 2021, the fund spent up to 45 million baht to post bail for those who needed it – not counting another million baht for related court fees. From January to August this year, the bail alone cost them 29 million baht. Defendants in  1,077 court cases have been freed on bail thanks to the fund’s assistance. 

While the women behind the fund speak of their work with pride, they insist that the right of citizens to be spared from prison before their guilt is proven should have been held sacrosanct by the justice system in the first place.  

“We hope for a day where our fund isn’t needed at all,” Chalita said. “The public should have convenient access to their bail release. It should have been the duty of the state to ensure that.”

But those fundamental rights remain out of reach for many, despite a constitutional clause on the presumption of innocence, Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a law scholar at Thammasat University, said in an interview. He estimates that at least 60,000 people are currently being held in prison while their trial is still inconclusive, making up about 20 percent of the entire inmate population.

A majority of those being held in pre-trial detention are low-income inmates who cannot secure funding to pay their bail, said Prinya, who condemned the situation as a jarring example of how wealth inequality affects one’s chance at avoiding imprisonment. 

“Poor people shouldn’t have to go to jail just because they’re poor,” the law professor said. 

While there is the “Justice Fund” operated by the Ministry of Justice, whose stated mission is to provide bail money for those who cannot afford to pay it themselves, access to that fund is not always guaranteed due to several hurdles. 

Namely, the fund regulation requires its officers to consider several factors before agreeing to lend assistance to a criminal suspect, like whether they’re likely to flee or interfere with the investigation. 

Due to the fund’s limited resources, Prinya also estimated that the fund probably covers one percent of all criminal cases – of which there are about 600,000 per year. 

Even by the agency’s own count, its outreach appears to be minimal. According to published statistics, the Justice Fund helped secure a bail release for 1,800 individuals from January 2021 to September 2022 – compared to over 1,000 people who owe their freedom to Ida’s four-women initiative in the same time period. 

Inheriting the wind 

Now that it’s established as a foundation, the Will of the People Fund will not stop at just bailing out dissidents, Ida said. 

Her team is now setting up other projects, like separate funds that help cover transport and related costs for low-income defendants, financial assistance to people imprisoned on political charges, and an archive documenting Thailand’s bloody struggles for democracy. 

“I think all the money transfers we received are also part of that history,” Ida said. “People from different backgrounds coming together to chip in their money and bail out those who fight for their rights, that’s also a history of people’s fights for justice. It deserves to be documented.” 

Paisarn, the taxi driver who escaped jail thanks to the fund’s donations, is also paying it forward. 

After seeing other activists sent to prison, Paisarn joined the group of campaigners behind the daily stunt called “Stand to Stop Imprisonment,” which gathered in front of courthouses to stand in silence to demand their immediate release. 

“I was reluctant to be put in the spotlight at first, but I’ve stepped forward … because I felt like I have to come out and demand the rights for people who are in prison,” Paisarn said. “They’ve already filed five separate charges against me for this campaign, but I’m not worried. I know very well that the [Will of the People] fund will be there to help me.” 

Teeranai Charuvastra is a journalist at Prachatai English. He covers politics, freedom of expression, and human rights.

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