Disclaimer: This story isn’t as exciting as the internet made it. If you are interested in the work, see the finished photos here.
Early last week, I took the inaugural flight from Don Mueang Airport (DMK) in Bangkok to the freshly minted Betong International Airport (BTZ).
On this trip, I had a brief encounter with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. That encounter led to some stir on the internet, much of which has nothing to do with anything I said or did.
Nonetheless, here is some perspective into my process, decision-making, and, yes- my assignment.
I’ve been working as a writer and photojournalist in the southern region of Thailand for several years. My work from Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat has been regularly published in international media. Feedback from mentors I work with, editors reviewing my frames, and followers of my work most often mention the body of work I’m building from there- it’s not being done frequently, so its memorable.
I have followed the construction and airline contract issues that have put a damper on the airport’s opening in Betong for years, so it should come as no surprise that I was also amongst the first to know when the maiden commercial flight was making the trip.
One month before the “inaugural trip” to Betong, I was granted access to the airport to take photos for international media. Those photos are available for licensing.
While I was there, I spoke with airport and airline staff about the airport’s upcoming (official) opening. Although their responses were the usual (riddled with uncertainty), I collected contacts that I could reach out to for information so that I’d for sure be on the flight when the time came.
One week before the flight on March 14, I was contacted by someone working with the airline about the flight route being opened. At that time, there was no mention of the Prime Minister being on the flight. I don’t think they’d even planned for him to be there yet. He had already taken a test flight to the airport the month prior, so his presence on this flight was neither here nor there (in my opinion).
I had already been to the airport, a big-time plane nerd. From what I had seen of the tiny airport and the runway between mountains, I knew the flight would be beautiful at least and thrilling at most.
So, I booked the flight and paid a little extra for Seat 2D. The seat with/for the view.
Two days before the flight, while traveling on a work trip to Surat Thani, I got several calls from unknown numbers. As usual, I just ignored them. Unlike most robocalls, though, it persisted. Eventually, I answered it, and much to my surprise, it was Nok Air calling to tell me that I’d be seated next to the Prime Minister on Flight DD6260 to Betong.
This is where it all got strange. All of it- from them (the airline, not the Government House or Security Detail) calling me to ask me if I’d like to change my seat not to sit next to the Prime Minister, all the way to the part where I eventually did sit next to the Prime Minister. It hasn’t stopped being strange.
I immediately started contacting mentors that I work closely with to ask them what I should do with what was happening. I knew that people did not often get this opportunity, and I also knew that the outcome of this situation would be entirely dependent upon my handling of myself. Everything from what I was wearing to what I said would matter, as it always has for me when I’m doing things similarly enshrouded in the security detail.
The reaction I got from mentors and other working professionals was as-expected. Either I received no response, or I was told it wouldn’t happen. I was told repeatedly that the Prime Minister does not take interviews, that he wouldn’t get close to foreign media, that it would be useless for me to have hope that this was happening.
Nonetheless, I prepared an interview.
No, my questions were not hard-hitting grand slams that would give the public answers to questions the PM doesn’t answer. Instead, I planned to ask him questions specifically about the importance of the flight we were on, its impact on the region, and what the plans were for the development of strategies for economic growth and bringing peace to conflict-ridden Yala, the latter of which is something I am deeply interested in.
The morning of the flight, I dragged myself to DMK airport at 7am (I had just flown in the evening before) to make the flight. I checked in, and still, my seat assignment was 2D. I was…at the airport, about to board the plane with the Prime Minister. As nervous as it gets, but ready for an interview.
There were obstructions from the time I reached the gate until I was seated on the plane. The security detail for the Prime Minister moves in very calculated ways, obviously, so it wasn’t until he was on the plane for the flight to Betong that I realized I wouldn’t be getting the anticipated opportunity on the first leg of the journey.
We made the journey, and by the way…it was beautiful.
Once we arrived at the airport, the usual chaos of working around the Prime Minister came. As they usually do, his security detail was aggressive and moving fast. I photographed the ceremony as the only independent media in the airport, but it was not easy. I was assigned handlers (saying they worked for the Spokesman) that breathed down my neck and watched my every move while I was trying to do the work. This was not my first time working around the Prime Minister, so it wasn’t particularly jarring. However, it was challenging. Every move in these moments has to be intentional and stated to security first. Then, if you’re lucky (and ask nicely, look respectful, etc.), you might be given access enough to get the shot you want.
Case in point:
I was seated directly in front Wutthiphum Jurangkool, CEO of Nok Air, on the return flight. I turned around mid-flight and asked him when the appropriate time for me to go talk to the Prime Minister would be. He told me that it probably wouldn’t be best; I should wait until we were landing to do it. That, quite frankly, made no sense to me. It seemed like every other diversion/obstacle that had been put in front of me and the goal throughout the entire day.
So, I rang the bell.
The flight attendant came to ask me what I needed, and I, quite simply, told her that I’d like to speak to the Prime Minister. I explained that my seat assignment was the one that was printed on the ticket, and I also gave the context that I was called days in advance to make sure I was going to be seated there. Much to my surprise, she went and spoke briefly to the Prime Minister, came back, and told me, “Okay, you can go.”
This day was so, so long and hot.
At this point, I had already untucked my shirt and looked like an entire hot mess, but now was my chance. So, I stood up and quickly dressed back up, took my phone, and marched to the front of the plane, where I sat next to the Prime Minister. You’ve seen that part.
At that time, I had no idea what to say. I looked at my phone to open it to the questions that I had prepared, and I was stumbling to do it. I was nervous because I, too, had come to believe that what was happening to me at that exact moment would never happen.
Regardless, I knew from his tone and the people sitting behind him that what I had come for would not necessarily be what I would get. But either way, I knew I had to keep calm and respectful if I was to make an impact or get anything done.
Quickly, I pulled myself together and did only what I know: I made myself familiar to the Prime Minister. I talked briefly to him about who I am, what my work to date in Thailand has been, how long I’ve been in Thailand, what I plan to do by being on this flight, and my hope for Betong. The Prime Minister nodded at me, patted me on the back, told me thanks, okay, and then agreed to take a photo with me.
That is precisely how I met Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and that is exactly what I talked to him about. With this insight into my process, perhaps you can understand that no matter how much you prepare for these situations, you will always be met with resistance and unforeseen obstacles.
My ability to make myself familiar with sources is a tool that is invaluable to me as an independent, freelance journalist. It has worked well for me until this point, and it is still driving my work forward in this situation. Familiarity as a tool and a goal is why I handled the situation as I did- it was my only safe opportunity at that time.
If ‘no’ had the same impact on me as it does many people who take it at face value, none of this would have ever happened for me. It is because I am familiar with the gears of Thai bureaucracy that I can apply myself to just about any story I need (or want) to get to, and why I can handle the unimaginable obstacles and challenges that anyone in that position is likely to face if they show up to do that work.
Several things have happened as a result of this encounter that I will highlight:
- I never promised an interview with the Prime Minister. That was created by the assumption and demand of other people I don’t know or work for. If you (the person reading this) want an interview with the Prime Minister, I hope that you’ll be able to achieve it. It’s difficult, and you’ll face obstacles that you likely couldn’t have imagined; even getting in the chair next to him is very difficult, plane or otherwise. However, I will applaud you when you do it because I know how difficult it is.
- The media circus that has been created as a result of the assumption of a small group of trolls and tabloid media is sad to see and experience. It is nothing less than glorified bullying. As these assumptions have grown, groups of people (and tabloid media) have projected their ideas and hopes and inserted words and actions that didn’t happen into the situation. That has led to even worse bullying, coming in part from media professionals. That is shameful and should be condemned when it is met. Any local media professional or platform that has validated the harassment I’m subject to by giving it a platform to exist on (and in the absence of fact-based reporting or objectivity) should be held to account for their own lack of professionalism.
- Keep pushing. I meant it. The systems in place that stop independent media from doing their job are solid and well-established. I started at zero access and with zero experience or assistance, and now I work regularly where it matters. That is because I keep pushing boundaries in ways that are not always comfortable for me or for the systems that often become comfortable with me over time. My intention was (and still is) to encourage anyone that is tired by the constant stream of ‘no’ to keep going. If you read what (or anything else) I have done and see it as I am looking down on you, that is not my issue nor my intent. I am happy to see people achieving the impossible (or improbable), it drives me forward. I am proud of every person working hard and achieving their goals; when I see what you’re able to achieve, I am inspired.
Photos from the grand opening event at Betong International Airport (BTZ): https://www.matthuntphoto.com/gallery/26899/nok-air-dd6260-inaugural-flight-to-betong