A book editor and translator is fundraising bond money for hundreds of activists and protesters as her own way of “paying off the debt” for those who braved arrest and prosecution to speak up against Thailand’s government.
In an unassuming alley typical of Thonburi’s residential area, there is a house with a storied past.
In the 1970s, when Thailand was ruled by a military-backed ultraconservative regime, a man who lived there lent the place to a group of volunteer lawyers. Using the house as their headquarters, the lawyers provided pro bono legal aid to students and dissidents accused of breaching the law in their calls for democracy.
That owner died several years ago, leaving it to his niece. The house is now once again the beating heart of an endeavour to ensure the rights to fair trial and free speech for ordinary people living under an autocratic regime.
From here, Ida Aroonwong runs the Will of the People Fund, or Ratsadorn Prasong in Thai, a crowdsourced effort providing bail money to political dissidents under prosecution for exercising their freedom of expression. Millions of baht have been raised from donations and spent on bailing out demonstrators and critics from jail, a Herculean task that has now tied down most of Ida’s daily life.
“It’s interesting how the house found its purpose again,” said Ida, now 48.
Unlike those who occupied the house before her, Ida is not an attorney by trade but a book editor and translator. In practice, however, she’s less of a writer than a lawyer. Her average days involve mulling over court documents more often than book manuscripts, and instead of translation gigs, she’s spent most of her time trying to decipher – and outwit – the complexity of Thailand’s justice system.
Although Ida insists that the fund is a team effort, others familiar with her work credit her as the brainchild behind the operation.
“To be honest, Ida is the main person in this,” said Chalita Bundhuwong, a sociology lecturer who helps run the charity. “Whatever that I can help her with, I’m willing to do.”
A fateful coincidence
Ida and a handful of volunteers manage the foundation from the house that once belonged to her late uncle. Ida also lives here after moving from a downtown apartment due to security concerns.
She divides her daily routine between “30 percent of book editing jobs and 70 percent of doing court paperwork.”
“I usually wake up at 3.30am. I like those hours,” Ida said. “It’s dark and very peaceful. I get to be with myself – drinking my coffee, taking care of my cats, answering emails.”
With a background in book publishing, Ida said her role with the bail money fund started as “a coincidence.”
“I never expected that I’d live most of my days with the court like I do right now,” Ida said with a chuckle.
In 2010, after a deadly military crackdown brought anti-government protests to an end and arrested many of the demonstrators, known as the Red Shirts. Civil rights lawyer Arnon Nampha was fundraising donations to support the legal defence for Red Shirt protesters, many of whom were from poor, rural areas.
In order to open a bank account for the initiative, called the Will of the People Lawyer Group, three people needed to sign for it.
“Someone at my publishing house was a former classmate of Arnon,” Ida said. “They needed three names, and so I just went along.”
Under Ida’s guidance, the fund took up a new purpose following the military coup of 2014. Dozens of activists and protesters were arrested for defying the junta’s ban on gatherings and stood trial under a military tribunal. It soon became apparent that many of the dissidents could not afford to pay the bond set by the military judges – it was either pay up or go to jail.
Ida responded by raising donations from the public to foot those bills and assuming the role of a bondsperson herself. As a bail bond agent, Ida was required to appear at the court to hand in the cash and paperwork and take responsibility in case of a defendant absconding from the trial.
“Actually it wasn’t hard to mobilise donations for bail money,” Ida explained. “But finding a bondsman was very hard, because many people were afraid of dealing with the court. And in the period after the coup, the military court was in charge, too, so people were even more afraid.”
She continued, “But since I mobilised those donations myself, I had to take the responsibility as well. And I want to show my stance by bailing those people out.”
‘Paying off the debt’
Ida didn’t hesitate to admit that she didn’t always have the courage to take her stand. She spoke earnestly of her fears when, in the early days of the coup, the military was summoning scores of social critics, scholars and activists to “attitude adjustment” sessions inside army bases. Protests against the junta’s rule were also quickly crushed.
When Ida received an offer of a research fellowship at Cornell University, she seized it as a means of escape. But a few months later, she cut short her program in the U.S. and returned to Thailand, overburdened by guilt.
“I kept seeing more and more people being arrested. I felt guilty watching the news,” Ida recalled. “I could have stayed for several years, because the scholarship allowed me to, but I decided to go back. I came to terms with myself.”
She went on, “I was already safe when others were targeted. It was time to pay off the debt. So I went on the offensive left and right like I was mad. Whenever I heard someone being arrested, I would be there for them.”
As the number of arrests and trials kept climbing to the point where dissidents were being prosecuted in both civilian and military courts, Ida’s personal crusade was becoming untenable. The breaking point came, rather literally, when Ida had a leg injury and had to move about on crutches. She knew she needed help.
Ida turned to her ex-classmate, Chalita, who readily accepted. An agreement was soon made; Ida would hobble to bail out defendants at the military court, while Chalita would take on cases at the civilian court.
“The court used to be something so distant for me. But now I’ve done it all, being a bondsman and even a defendant sometimes,” Chalita said with a laugh. The lecturer herself was charged with sedition in 2020.
More than 2,100 civilians would be tried by the military court before the junta stopped the practice in late 2016.
Born and raised in Bangkok, Ida entered Chulalongkorn University’s Art Faculty in the aftermath of the 1992 deadly uprising against a military-backed unelected Prime Minister.
Dozens were killed in the crackdown, but the protests helped steer Thailand toward constitutional reform, sparking a revival in grassroots movements. College students worked with upcountry communities on environmental, land rights, and other issues. Ida herself was swept up in this tide of this zeitgeist, and her active role in campus activism eventually earned her admonishment from one of her lecturers.
“A professor told me, ‘who would give a job to someone with a history like yours? No way.’ So that was the moment I thought I should just be a freelance translator and writer after I graduate,” Ida said.
Ida’s activism also led to a lifelong friendship with Chalita, a fellow activist who was studying at the political science faculty at the time. Years later, when Ida was looking for another person to take the role of a bondsman, she immediately thought of Chalita.
“I always knew her as a reticent yet fearless person, someone who’s willing to help other people all the time,” Ida recalled her impression of Chalita in their college years.
“That’s how I realised that this person would have been perfect as a bondsman. It has to be Chalita. Because it’s a role that gives nothing in return, but whenever you’re needed, you have to be there.”
After graduating, Ida became a book editor and translator. Still, she never abandoned the civic zeal she picked up in college. She worked part time for an NGO, helping communities scrutinise government projects that risked damaging the environment, while Chalita headed off to the southern border provinces to research the separatist violence that plagued the region.
The two reunited as fellow bail bond agents under the People of the Will Fund – a role Chalita took willingly upon being asked by Ida.
Located on a sidestreet almost just across from the Grand Palace, the military court is run by a tribunal of judges known as the Staff Judge Advocate, who try and pass judgement on members of the armed forces accused of breaching military conducts, like desertion and failing to obey instructions.
After the coup of May 2014, the tribunal and its small staff of army officers were suddenly thrust into the forefront of the junta’s prosecution of dissidents who spoke out against the regime. For the first time in Thailand’s living memory, civilians would be tried by the military. No appeal was possible once a verdict was handed down.
“During that time, I met so many of the accused because the military court ordered them to report themselves so often with their bail bond agents, so I had to be there too,” Ida said. “I ended up being there every day because people were arrested constantly.
“I met the defendants so many times that we became so familiar with one another,” she said, emotion heavy in her voice. “We became friends, really. We comforted each other. The experience made me invest so much time in them, and it made me grieve along with them, because once I saw their faces, I couldn’t help but share my emotions with them.”
To her surprise, the same sense of humanity also extended to the military court officials, despite the initial mutual mistrust and antagonism.
“My experience with the military court was ironic,” Ida said. “The military court looks like they are stringent people, but in reality, they showed even more humanity than their civilian counterparts because the military court is really small. The process involves only a handful of officials. Once you walked into the courtroom, we saw each other’s faces immediately. We kept seeing each other until we were friends.
“In the end, they look at us in a more positive light, and we understand them more. I’ve seen firsthand the lives of junior ranking officials. Their lives are as difficult as ours. Sometimes when the bail hearing dragged on into the night, they couldn’t go home to their families, either. They had to stay with us. By the time the court session was over, the buses stopped running already, so they had a difficult time going home.”
Ida rendered her verdict as thus, “The more we interacted with each other, the more we understood each other.”
After the cases were transferred to the civilian court in 2016, Ida said it was the first time she faced the full brunt of bureaucracy – the faceless web of apparatchiks and documents that seem to exude disinterest in humanity. Every step to navigating the procedures felt like a challenge, especially to ordinary people unfamiliar with the justice sys
“Let me reiterate here, I am criticising the system,” Ida added. “The system forces us to be submissive and supplicant. Even the bail request documents aren’t called ‘forms,’ they are called ‘petitions.’ We have to petition for their mercy.”
She also no longer feels the human connection with the people who rely on the bail fund; there is now a network of lawyers and scholars who volunteer to serve as bondsmen, so Ida and Chalita are relegated to backdoor work for the fund.
“Nowadays I only see them on paper and receipts. I don’t know who they are anymore,” Ida said. “But I can’t just see or get to know all of them like before either, since hundreds of suspects are now being tried.”
Edited by Fabian Drahmoune