Censored, fired and cancelled: Citylife interviews wife of Isaan activist facing deportation

Journalist and activist from Khon Kaen talks to Citylife about censorship

By | Sun 18 Apr 2021

“I’m willing to talk because we have nothing to lose,” says Thai native Hathairat Phaholtap about her American husband’s recent situation with the Thai government. “We have absolutely nothing to lose now.” Hathairat’s willingness to speak to the media is brave considering her husband David Streckfuss’ recent legal circumstances. David was the Director of Khon Kaen University’s CIEE Study Abroad programme for 27 years and in February of 2021 David’s work permit was revoked for what the couple says was, “Involvement in Thai politics.” David and his wife Hathairat are activists in the Isaan community and publicly write, speak and act up about Thai politics.

In a one hour phone conversation that was intended to be a quick 15 minute chat, Hathairat outlined the couple’s situation and shared some of her personal emotions about the recent pressure that’s been applied to her family.

“Kong Kean is our home,” Hathairat said warmly about her rural hometown, “we love it. The two of them live and work in the north-eastern region of Isaan with 4 dogs; Namtan, Honey, Sam Jud and Lek. Isaan is Thailand’s largest region and Hathairat and David are committed to its continual improvement, “David and I live in Nong Bua Lamphu because we want to help Isaan. The Isaan people are poor and have a lot of development to do. It’s not fair because Isaan people are Thai people but they don’t get the type of development support like other places in Thailand do like Bangkok.” David is the founder of the Isaan Record newspaper and Hathairat is the current editor.

The activist couple works hard for change. Both are freelance journalists and have contributed to media outlets such as Thai PBS, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Hathairat said, “We just want to use our freedom to speak out as a media eye and a journalist eye. We want to tell the world what’s going on in Thailand as a witness.” Hathairat feels as though the couple’s public political work has been a main cause for David’s visa revocation, “For me I’m so angry. To me, we are in this situation because since the coup happened in 2014 I worked for Thai PBS and I criticised the Thai government a lot. When I worked at Thai PBS I could feel some ‘big brothers’ pushing me. I wrote articles and produced features on television about the Thai government. In July I covered Anon Nampa’s story for the Isaan Record (a recently jailed Thai political activist) and a day later, the police came to our office and tried to interfere. We still face the same situations.”

Hathairat and David only met officially in 2019 but have known each other for around seven years through a university Facebook group. “We are both Badgers and we both attended University of Wisconsin–Madison. Before I met David, I read his articles.” In 2019, while working as a fixer for Al Jazeera News, she saw David speak at an election panel in Bangkok, “When I heard him speak about Isaan people dying in the 2010 Thai military crackdown I saw him cry. I said to myself, ‘Why didn’t the government think these people are human like us? Why did these people have to die?’ It broke my heart. After that, I felt ‘wow’ this is the person I am looking for in my life.” The couple married in August 2020 amidst the COVID lockdown.

Since meeting, Hathairat and David have spoken freely about Thai politics all while being very aware of the dangers it may impose upon them, “We will never give up. Not ever. We have to use our voice.” The couple recently attended an Isaan meetup where a collective of around 100 artists, activists and students gathered with the intention of discussing Isaan’s developing identity. It was shortly after they attended that the university revoked David’s visa. The couple assumes their attendance and activity there may have just as well played a role in their visa situation, “It might have been our recent actions. We want to go deep into the reasons why this is happening because to me, I’m not scared to go to jail because I’m the media and I’m doing my job. But please, just don’t make me disappear. David is okay to go to jail but he doesn’t want to get kicked out. Thailand and Isaan are his home. He loves Isaan.”

The reason for David’s termination still puzzles the couple: On February 18th, David received an official letter from Khon Kaen University that only stated, “This person (David) cannot work properly for the department and we need to cancel the contract. We would like to let immigration know that this person will work with us until March 19th, 2021.” While David is currently on a 30 day overstay visa, Hathairat and David have consulted their lawyer and are pursuing either a two month ‘COVID visa’ or a one year spouse visa. “If this doesn’t work,” said Hathairat, “we can try a retirement visa. If the government denies all of these options then we don’t know what we will do. If they deny us then we think they should explain to us why? They will need to explain. They have to.”

Hathairat and David are only after freedom of speech, “I want Thailand to give us justice,” she said. “Return the freedom to the media. The media are scared when people get arrested. It makes us scared. David is nervous because he thinks the Thai government will kick him out. He doesn’t want to leave his house. He doesn’t want to go back to America. His life is here.”

After discussing a bit more about the couple’s hairy situation, she asked if I would like to speak to David quickly about the matter. The Illinois-scholar-turned-jobless picked up the phone and said, “I’m not surprised but a bit disappointed. This government is doing everything it can not to provide a solution to this issue.” He continued sharing his thoughts on the Thai government’s actions, “Their actions are not managing issues, it’s cancelling and putting people in jail. There’s no space for people to talk and now they are cracking down. But, the government has never asked me for advice,” he joked.

Before hanging up, I thanked David and asked if he had any solutions to the issue of freedom of speech in Thailand, David suggested that the Thai government could, “set up seminars and start a dialogue about democracy and the constitution and human rights. They could provide that, but they aren’t. They are doing the opposite. They throw everyone they disagree with in jail. It is a way to manage things, I suppose. Society is in trouble when the older generations start destroying the upcoming generations. That generally doesn’t go well.”

The brave Isaan activist said he and his wife Harithat would continue their fight as he concluded, “The Thai government could help redefine the country so everyone can work together without going to jail. If the Thai government would like to charge me with defamation, please do. At least that way I can stay in Thailand.”