Their number is unknown yet is growing all the time. Most are thrown into cells which can hold up to 60 persons, where there is so little sleeping space some prisoners have to bed-down according to a rota and those on remand are shackled in chains for court appearances. Their crime? They’ve breached Thailand’s draconian 112 law, more commonly known as lese majeste, where any act deemed to insult or defame the monarchy, even made in private to a third party, can result in decades in prison.
Take the case of Amphon Tangnoppakul aka Ah Kong, the 62 year old retired cancer-suffering truck driver from the staunchly working class district of Samut Prakan just outside Bangkok who died in May 2012. His case initially drew worldwide attention after being sentenced to 20 years in prison for sending four SMS text messages deemed to be in breach of 112 to an assistant of former Thai PM and present leader of the Democrat Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva.
And while Amphon’s case and recent death grabbed the international headlines, plenty more haven’t. There’s journalist and left-wing political activist Somyot Pruksakasemsuk and Surachai Saedan, the leader of the Red Siam radical socialist movement, both of whom are awaiting trial on numerous counts of lese majeste that may result in decades-long prison sentences. Then there are others like computer programmer Tanthawut Taweewarodomkul who is serving a 1 3year sentence for being involved with a Red Shirt website and Nat Sattayapornpisut (recently released) who discussed the monarchy in private emails sent to an activist in Spain and who received 3 years. There are many more lese majeste victims awaiting trial or investigation some for offences such as not standing up for the King’s song in a cinema while others are facing enquiries based purely on unsuitable body language.
Yet, these developments aren’t recent and have been part of a process of ramping up of lese majeste cases that got under way in 2008 and escalated rapidly during the previous Abhisit-led regime. In many cases those targeted with lese majeste laws have been Red Shirt activists and supporters of ousted PM, Thaksin Shinawatra. The claim, according to UK-based freedom of expression advocates, ARTICLE 19, is that the lese majeste law has been used to “target political opponents”. This “politicisation” of the LM law is something the existing prisoners are fully aware of.
In a series of interviews in a Bangkok prison, several lese majeste prisoners stated that they considered themselves absolutely both “political prisoners” and “prisoners of conscience”. There were complaints that the international human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were ignoring them and had not taken any noteworthy action – no prisoner I spoke to had had any contact with either group despite several of them being incarcerated for years (at the time of interview this was correct – I understand that HRW may have visited some LM prisoners). However, all said that since the election of the Pheu Thai government in July 2011 conditions had improved. Prior to this the prisoners said they had been subject to beatings and intimidation by guards and other prisoners. “When Abhisit was Prime Minister things were really bad and PAD-supporting guards and prisoners [the PAD are the extreme rightwing, ultra-royalist faction more commonly known as the Yellow Shirts] would attack me,” one said. “Things have certainly improved since the new Pheu Thai government was elected in 2011.”
A statement smuggled out from prison also claimed that during the period when the previous Democrat Party government were in power the lese majeste prisoners had received death threats from members of that government, that medical treatment had been denied to them and that there had been incidences of forced/punishment labour and other widespread abuse. During this period of Democrat Party rule neither Amnesty or HRW conducted any monitoring of prison conditions for lese majeste prisoners and both, as will be revealed later in this article, actually refused on several occasions to properly address the issue of lese majeste. How these conditions and the failure of the international human rights NGOs to monitor these conditions effectively impacted on the health of the recently deceased Ah Kong has yet to be ascertained.
After the Pheu Thai Party won a landslide victory in the July 2011 election, Yingluck Shinawatra, sister to the former Thai PM, Thaksin Shinawatra – who was illegally removed from power in a 2006 military coup – has been installed as Thailand’s first female leader. Since that point Yingluck has had to contend with the worst flooding in living memory and plenty of sabre-rattling by Thailand’s notoriously coup-happy generals. This flexing of military power has been particularly vociferous when the issue of amending the 112 lese majeste law has been mentioned – reforms that were originally mooted when Yingluck first came to power.
“The military have been sending a very clear message via the media and other channels for weeks,” says prominent government party MP and secretary of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Jarupan Kuldiloke. “If we try to amend 112 they will stage a coup. This puts us in a very difficult position as we cannot create and amend laws in what would be the normal procedure for a democratically elected civilian government. The threats are very real.”
Red Shirt leader, Thida Thavornsate, reiterates Jarupan’s comments. “Pheu Thai are scared of a coup”, she said. “Remember that Thailand is a dual state and that the government doesn’t have control in the normal way. The civil service, the army and the courts are not under democratic control and are unaccountable. There is no effective rule of law and the army make continual threats. Pheu Thai are scared of the power of the army.”
Even a body of legal academics, known as the Nitirat Group, who have put together a package of very mild reforms to the lese majeste laws, have come under continued and threatening attacks from military and extreme rightwing groups. Under difficult circumstances Nitirat are maintaining their reform-led position yet a “pogrom” like atmosphere is developing, with the burning of effigies of senior Nitirat members on the streets of Bangkok and even the previously highly-regarded Thammasat University banning the group from meeting on their premises.
Nonetheless many are also criticising the present government for “back-sliding” on human rights after a number of Pheu Thai government figures said they would widen the crackdown on lese majeste. In addition a recent Human Rights Watch report attacks the government for failing to address the use of lese majeste and for extending this draconian law’s reach.
However, HRW have drawn a huge amount of criticism from prominent human rights activists and others in Thailand for both their lack of commitment to protecting human rights in Thailand and for comments attributed to HRW’s lead Thai-researcher Sunai Phasuk found in the wikileaks US Embassy cables. In these cables Sunai has a number of statements attributed to him that make clear his support for the 2006 military coup that removed a democratically elected government, that he is a “committed anti-Thaksin activist” and that he believes a significant element of the Red Shirts were “bent on using violence to topple the monarchy”, a claim for which he offers no evidence. Sunai is also cited just after the 2006 coup saying how “close” he is to Thai Army officers and that he “had always held the military in high regard for their sense of honor and dedication to the country.” Given that only two years previously the Thai Army had been video taped engaging in an appalling massacre in Tak Bai that left 87 dead, this is an astonishing statement for a human rights worker to be making.
On the issue of lese majeste Sunai is reported as saying in another cable that HRW wouldn’t support a Thai trade union activist being harassed with the lese majeste laws as the case was “unattractive” and “that association with the case would damage his ability to work as a human rights defender”. The trade unionist concerned, Jittra Kotchadet, said that she “wasn’t surprised” by HRW’s inaction as they “haven’t really done anything to support people in Thailand.” She also said that “HRW don’t act according to principle and seem to take sides in the political conflict. And for some reason they keep trying to link the Black Shirts to the Red Shirts [the armed element from the April/May 2010 protests that supposedly had links to the Red Shirts. The claims that links existed were recently undermined by a Bangkok Post journalist Wassana Nanuam who counter-claimed that, in fact, the Black Shirts were more likely a rogue element in the Thai Army]. Where is their evidence that they are connected? Not even the Thai state could produce any and no one has yet been arrested from this “element”. So why do HRW keep repeating this story?”
Prominent and highly respected Thai human rights activist, Kwanravee Wangudom, who spoke last year at the House of Lords about the deaths of unarmed protesters during the Abhisit regime’s brutal suppression of the Red Shirts in 2010, went further and questioned the factual basis for HRW’s lese majeste “backsliding” claims. Kwanravee said that the figures HRW have been using for their claim that lese majeste cases have increased under the present government are baseless. “The National Human Rights Commission [cited by HRW] doesn’t have any concrete information of the number of people charged with lese majeste,” she said. “By using these figures HRW are not presenting any verifiable evidence.” Internationally recognized lese majeste expert Dr. David Streckfuss agrees with Kwanravee’s assessment. “Most of the cases we have heard about in the last few months were initiated during the last [Abhisit] government,” he said. “I would doubt that the number of cases has risen under the new [Pheu Thai] government.”
Criticisms of the international NGOs lack of action on lese majeste and human rights abuses in Thailand, don’t end there. Amnesty International’s lead researcher, Ben Zawacki, has been repeatedly questioned regarding to comments he once made that appeared to defend the use of the lese majeste law. He was also queried for seemingly colluding with Abhisit-era Thai government officials when designating the Prisoner of Conscience status of one Thailand’s most infamous lese majeste prisoners, Da Torpedo. Furthermore, at the end of 2011 Zawacki told Bangkok-based reporter, Marwaan Macan-Markar, that “Amnesty is unfortunately not able to assign a number of political prisoners in Thailand since the 2006 coup.” Zawacki went on to say that “AI has “no plans” for a report to expose the number of people jailed in Thailand for LM.” And this line that Thailand’s political prisoners are hard to quantify or don’t exist at all has been parroted by the US State Department’s report on human rights in Thailand which states, point blank, “There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.”
One of Thailand’s leading academics and thinkers, Dr. Thongchai Winichakul, a former student radical who was present at the infamous Thammasat Massacre in 1976, has recently made very strong statements on the entire Thai human rights community’s failings on lese majeste and other issues in interviews he gave to me here and here.
In these interviews Thongchai questioned not only the ethics of both Amnesty and HRW but also pointed directly to both NGOs being politicized.
“For the first five year from 2005 onwards both AI and HRW were inactive, silent, and implicitly against the effort to fight this unjust law [lese majeste] and also to help victims of this law. The bottom-line was, in my opinion, that HRW and AI received most of their information from, and followed the views of, a group of local Thai human rights people who are dominated by anti-Thaksin activists. This group are very biased and lack the usual professionalism necessary to uphold human rights principles. They are too politicized and their politics seem to have clouded their views and judgments on human rights issues. Most of them supported the coup and a few senior human rights figures even joined the “tours” organized and financed by the coup regime to explain to the world the necessity of the coup. Their political biases blinded them from seeing the victims of the LM as political prisoners or prisoners of conscience because most of these victims are Thaksin supporters or at least anti-coup regime. Also many of the human rights lawyers became active supporters for the anti-Thaksin, PAD Yellow camp. And even today, these human rights activists and lawyers refuse to provide legal assistance to the poor families of Red Shirts supporters who have been victims of the Abhisit-regimes repressive use of LM laws and who were jailed since the violent crackdown in mid-2010.”
It is set against this entire backdrop that the present Yingluck Shinawatra-led government has recently opened a new political prison to house those incarcerated for crimes related to “politics”. All the lese majeste prisoners interviewed were keen to make it clear that they supported this move by the government and all considered themselves political prisoners. “We want political status,” said one, while nearly all of the prisoners also threatened to stage a hunger strike if they weren’t transferred to the political prison as soon as possible.
“One of the reasons we opened the new political prison was to make sure the security and safety of these prisoners could be maintained,” says Jarupan Koldiloke MP. “I also want to say that we are doing our best to make sure the lese majeste prisoners are moved there quickly. Hopefully this will take place soon.”
Thida Thavornsate also made it clear the Red Shirt leadership consider the lese majeste detainees political. “All the lese majeste prisoners are political prisoners and need to be moved to Laksi [the political prison]. Though I do have to say that there are still some problems with facilities at the new prison but we have to remember that the establishment were completely opposed to it opening at all.”
I was granted unique access to the new political prison and spoke to several of those incarcerated there, none of whom have been charged with lese majeste and all of whom were awaiting trial or appeals. “We are much happier here,” was the resounding message delivered during our interview with them. “We are all Red Shirts,” one said, “and while this government isn’t perfect, we know, unlike the last government, that it comes from a democratic election.” All these prisoners also spoke of prison “politicizing” them and that in the new prison they felt “more together as a group” and less “scared”.
On the failures of HRW and AI the prisoners said that neither organization “has helped us at all.” One said “Why don’t they monitor our cases?” and another “How can HRW say things are worse under the Yingluck government? Don’t they understand anything that has happened here?”
So where now for Thailand? The reforms that many consider necessary to return Thailand to full democratic normalcy appear to be hampered, under threat of force, by shadowy political forces while those usually relied upon to impart an independent account of what is going on in the country are seemingly politicized and failing to tackle key issues.
Yet, not all Thais are daunted by this. Some are ready for whatever lies ahead. “Let them stage their coup,” says Jittra Kotchadet. “Let the world see what is really going on here.”
Andrew Spooner is a journalist and commentator who blogs here. The research for this article was conducted entirely before the death of Ah Kong.