How A Thai Orphan Went From Child Soldier To Humanitarian Leader

Orphaned and forced to live on the streets at just 5, Amporn Wathanavong had a miserable childhood, and was lured to fight in the jungles along the Cambodian border. But he ultimately got an education and founded an organization to help poor orphans.

Amporn Wathanavong with some of the children his organization helps
Amporn Wathanavong with some of the children his organization helps
Kannikar Petchkaew

BANGKOK â€" Across the world tens of thousands of child soldiers are forced to join armies and rebel militias every year. Vulnerable and exposed to atrocity, the experience is deeply scarring and traumatic. Amporn Wathanavong, a former child soldier from Thailand, knows this first-hand from his time in the jungles along the Cambodian border in the early 1950s.

His mother died when he was just 5 years old. At the time, he didn't even know what death was. What he remembers most about her is that she always smelled of jasmine and that she sang him a familiar lullaby.

Wathanavong's father had died a year earlier, and after his mother passed he was left alone. Orphaned, he began sleeping on the streets of Surin, a border town in northeast Thailand, begging and stealing to get by.

In 1951, at the age of 15, Wathanavong tried to escape the shame and indignity. He followed a stranger he met who told him how he could eat three meals a day. That's how he ended up as a child soldier in the jungles that line the Thai-Cambodian border.

Young and desperate, he found himself fighting alongside the Cambodians, in their last ditch effort to defeat the French. It was a decision Wathanavong says he felt forced to make. "Fighting with others we don't know, not our enemy, is something strange for us," he says. "But because of the poverty and hardship, I had to do it for my own survival."

Wathanavong is now 80, one of very few child soldiers from that time who is still alive. Looking back, he says the fighting was totally senseless. "There was no reason for me to go out and fight with others," he says. "It was just a matter of necessity, for survival of my own life. We went out to fight just for money. That's it."

Getting out

During an interview in Bangkok, he cried recalling the first time he first killed someone. But after a while, killings became part of his daily life. They were paid about $5 for each enemy soldier they killed.

"Yes, we attacked people," he says. "We killed people, unknown people, for no reason at all."

There were 20 young boys in Wathanavong's unit, who patrolled day and night along the border with guns and knives, ready to attack.

Source: FORDEC

Like a wounded dog, Wathanavong left the jungle when the war was over. By age 17, he was severely damaged, both physically and mentally.

Today his arm doesn't swing freely because of injuries sustained in the jungle, and there are two bullets still embedded in his stomach. But the physical pain represents just part of the damage. Wathanavong was haunted by nightmares and riddled with shame.

"I had no hope," he says now. "I tried to commit suicide twice. The first time I tried to hang myself. Later on, I drank insecticide and was out for five days."

Wathanavong says that young poor children with no guidance can easily be recruited into the same kind of nightmare. "For these children, you know, it's very easy to lure them to the fighting. If they are in hardship and they have nothing to eat and they have no progress and no income. Society has to understand their situation."

That's why Wathanavong started the Foundation for the Rehabilitation & Development of Children and Family, or FORDEC, an organization working for poor children in Thailand. He used his retirement money to create the fund, which provides education to thousands of orphans and poor children.

Illiterate when he left the jungle, Wathanavong struggled through his trauma and managed to go back to school. He spent years working in a church library before making the switch to NGOs and eventually earning a master's degree. Getting an education changed his life, which is why he is committed to helping others in need.

"We always have to have hope in our life," he says. "The darkness and the light is all together. This is the philosophy of life you have to find out by yourself."

Wathanavong's nightmare is over, but those of other child soldiers now fighting in the jungle somewhere are just beginning.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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