Let’s Talk About Democracy Book Re:public Owner Rodjareag wins US State Department Award for Bookshop

 |  August 22, 2016

I walk into Book Re:public, escaping the noisy road and sticky June heat in exchange for air conditioning and stark quiet that matches the neat, whitewashed paint and angular shelves against the walls. This isn’t how I expected it to look—the bookshop that is.

I’ve spent the previous week reading about Book Re:public, a world-renowned bookshop and political discussion centre run by Rodjaraeg Wattanapanit. Due to the nature of the discussions and the books housed along on the shelves of the shop, Book Re:public’s existence is controversial in Thailand.

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The purpose of my visit is to interview Rodjaraeg about her recent US State Department Women of Courage Award. The award is given to nine women around the world each year, and Rodjareag was one of them this spring. I’m excited to learn how this woman from Mae Hong Son with a degree in Business Administration became the internationally known owner of a thriving political bookshop in Chiang Mai.

I thought it would be darker, with more of a secretive feel, I think to myself. I thought there would be mismatched plush armchairs and the books would be faded with yellowing pages, like my grandmother’s living room. I pictured elderly people, as old as the texts housed here, hobbling around the room.

Book Re:public is the opposite of my imaginary picture. The store is lit by sunlight streaming in through the full-length window covering the front of the store. Any passer by could see without even opening the door the titles on the organised wooden shelves on the other three sides of the rectangular space. The open room represents what Book Re:public wants for Thai politics—transparency and ability for all people to engage.

Books on the shelves are in brand new condition, espousing that lovely smell of fresh ink recently pressed to paper when one flips through the pages. Rather than a living room, the space itself reminds me of a classroom for a university seminar. Matching chairs sit around a big table in the centre of the room. The setup makes sense, since the main reason for discussions held here is to learn from each other. Additionally the staff at the counter is friendly young university students rather than stodgy oldies.

As I’m taking it all in, I turn and see Rodgaraeg. I recognise her from photos. Even if I hadn’t seen photos though, I would have quickly known it was Rodgaraeg. She has this large presence that commands the space, even though neither her body nor physical actions are big. Rodgaraeg is thin, not particularly tall. She wears a flowy, loose fitting white blouse that matches her relaxed mannerisms and big round glasses that, in my opinion, symbolise her desire to see the world more clearly. She moves softly, not disturbing even the air around her. When she speaks, she is calm and deliberate. Her words, rather than her body, slice through the air with determination.

Rodgaraeg and I sit down across from one another at the table. I first ask her about the name.

“Book Re:public, you know, it has a colon in between re and public,” Rodgareag reminds me. “Re means subject, or about. [The name of the store] means books about the public, about people, about everything with and for people.”

The theme of serving people permeates all of Rodgareag’s past and present work I soon learn. We begin to discuss how she became interested in Thai politics.

“I worked with NGOs for 27 years. NGOs for every issue I was working with unavoidably related to politics. Especially when I worked on the environmental issues,” she says.

In regards to environmental issues, Rodgareag explains, “I worked…to assist the hill tribe people who have lived in the forest for a long time. We wanted to help because the government, specifically the forestry department, wanted to relocate them outside of the forest—to live in the towns. [The hill tribe people] didn’t want to leave the forest because they had lived there for a long time. They had their own wisdom to protect the forest, especially Karen people. So my work was to help the government understand that they should be able to live in the forest since they protect the forest, not destroy the forest as the government often thinks. We proposed the Community Forestry Bill [in order to help solve this conflict].”

Throughout our discussion, Rodjareag continually brings up the effects of events on hill tribe people and other under-represented populations in Thailand. I can tell that making sure everyone is heard and understood is something about which she is passionate.

Her work with NGOs provided Rodjareag with the foundation beneath her interest in Thai politics, but it was May 2010 that sparked Rodgareag to really desire to learn what was happening to Thai democracy.

“I’ve read a lot of books throughout my life, but in 2010 I started reading more about politics. I just started to read and read because I wanted to understand political things,” Rodjareag tells me.

In regards to opening Book Re:public in 2011, Rodjareag says, “my friends and I wanted ask what is democracy in Thailand? So we wanted to open a public space in Thailand for people to have conversations about democracy because in Thailand public spaces for these conversations [are rare].”

And Book Re:public was born. The first few years, despite the boundaries it pushed with its discussion topics and books, Book Re:public thrived. The bookshop initially had a library, store, and discussion area. It hosted speakers, as well as a course called “Democracy School” for local university students.

“Democracy School—we did it for about three years. The first and second year we had it every Saturday for 12 weeks,” Rodjareag smiles, remembering its success. Then her face falls a bit. Book Re:public no longer can hold Democracy School.

Seeing her slight disappointment appear unconsciously on Rodjareag’s face, I switch the topic to her recent Women of Courage Award and trip to the United States that accompanied the award.

It turns out this is Rodjareag’s second trip to the United States. In 2007, she was working as a coordinator for Community Forest Support Group—Northern Development Foundation when she was nominated by the US Embassy to take part in the International Visitor Leadership Program. The US Embassy selects 5,000 international visitors from around the world to participate in the programme each year. The participants are often academics, journalists, and, as in Rodjareag’s case, NGO workers. During this one-month programme, Rodjareag visited Washington DC, Florida, Oregon, and California.

This time around, Rodjareag returned to Washington DC, along with visiting Raleigh, North Carolina and Los Angeles, California. Her favourite place on her trip was Raleigh.

“It was very different from Washington DC. In DC I met a lot of high ranking policy people, but in Raleigh I met a lot of women activists and NGO leaders,” she explains.

Rodjareag shows me photos of North Carolina State University’s Free Expression Tunnel, marvelling at its simplicity and effectiveness. The Free Expression Tunnel is a concrete space underneath some train tracks where students can write anything. The space is covered with spray painted messages that crowd together and overlap one another. She says that she showed these photos to university students in Chiang Mai, and they would like to have something similar at their university but cannot.

I ask her about what I assume is one of the most difficult aspects to her job—trying to convince the authorities that her discussions will not affect Thailand’s national security, while avoiding tangling with the Thai military.

“They detain me there for two days, just staying in a room. I cannot do anything because they lock [the door] from outside. It’s like a jail,” Rodjareag describes.

As for her actual conversations with the Thai military, “They’re kind of ‘good cop, bad cop.’ Ten men stand in a circle around me. Some yell at me. And some ask me [questions calmly].”

“They just tell me national security. You should not do this because of national security. I tell them what did I do to affect national security? This isn’t gossip. I organise book talks, and we talk about books. They don’t have an answer for me after that. They just tell me don’t do it right now,” Rodjareag says. She adds, “I make sure to tell them in the camp that freedom of expression is not hate speech.”

Her last summons was in May, but Rodjareag doesn’t consider it detainment because her stay only lasted between three and four hours and just involved talking.

Although Rodjareag and others are determined that the bookshop continue operation, the coup has greatly affected Book Re:public. Along with the cancellation of Democracy School, the shop itself was forced to close for a short period and then move to a smaller location. Also, a military officials dressed in plain clothes attended every discussion, and Rodjareag had to sign an “MOU” in the interest of Thai security.

“The MOU means I am not allowed to get involved in any political activities and, if I would like to go abroad, I have to ask them for permission.”

I’m in awe at her calm perseverance. Despite the strong obstacles, Book Re:public has a thriving community that frequents the bookshop and attends talks. In the short hour or so I’m in the shop, a professor shows up, and Rodjareag greets her with warm familiarity. She tells me about a German student who came in the previous day. Several weeks ago, the now-departed US Consul General in Chiang Mai, Michael Heath, spoke at a Book Re:public event about US Elections. Support clearly comes from all around the city.

It’s also clear that Rodjareag makes a point to get to know everyone who walks into her bookshop. She asks me about my background, and is one of the few people to express interest when I mention my degree in anthropology. She describes customers in detail and easily remembers when they plan to return. Her bookshop is built around people, and, while not loud in nature, Rodjareag is clearly a people person.

As our conversation comes to a close, Rodgareag introduces me to the two university students working at the counter and invites me to look around. Armed with her recommendations – Animal Farm by George Orwell (a staple in American high schools), multiple books by Michel Foucault, and a Thai classical novel, titled ปีศาจ – I hunt the shelves. The majority of books are printed in Thai, too advanced for my Prathom 1 level Thai reading skills. However, there is a small area dedicated to English books. I honestly think I could spend all afternoon reading through this section, but I cut myself off.

As I’m leaving, Rodjareag and her staff are beginning to set up for an evening book talk, but they make sure to wish me good bye. “Come back anytime,” Rodjareag smiles warmly. And I think I will be back soon.

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