Chawee Klinkulai, sits on the floor of the house that her son, Theerawat, built before his imprisonment. Overwhelmed by her situation, she is losing touch with reality because of the stress of losing both Theerawat and his elder brother, who is wanted and has gone into hiding.

The prisoners filter into the visiting room. One stands out in particular: a healthy-looking young man. His name is Theerawat Sarjasuwen; he says he is 21 years old. When the ten-minute visitation period ends, he makes a peace sign with his fingers as he walks away.

The home he built in Ubon Ratchathani prior to his arrest stands empty. His mother, Chawee Klinkulai, 47, is the only one who stops by anymore. As Chawee looks around the abandoned house, her gaze lingers on several photos of Theerawat proposing to his girlfriend that are tacked on a cabinet. While his life has stalled, his girlfriend has decided to move on with hers.

“If he is in prison for 34 years, his life will be hopeless. You cannot grow old in a prison. You should have just asked him to commit suicide,” she says quietly.

Theerawat was convicted of arson in connection to the Ubon Ratchathani Provincial Hall fire, and is sentenced to 33 years and four months in jail. At any other time he probably would have been sentenced to less than 10 years. However, Theerawat is a member of the red shirt movement and was arrested in May 2010. His steep sentence is a reflection of the tense political climate of the time.

Kwanravee Wangudom, a coordinator of the People’s Information Center: April – May 2010 (PIC), says, “Jailing is one way of suppressing dissidents. It is a method used by authoritarian regimes to control and weaken the opposition. The red shirts have emerged so powerfully that the previous government and the old establishment saw them as a threat to their political stability.”

The People’s Information Centre (PIC) estimates that about 1,219 people had been detained nationwide since the crackdown, with 742 of them charged with violations of the Emergency Decree. As of 10 December 2011, 56 people are still in detention, with 41 of them (31 from the Northeast) waiting for bail to be granted. Such figures have not been settled as the authorities continue to arrest more people believed to be in connection with the demonstrations last year.

Recently, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva stated that the government’s actions in response to the violence were justified. ”All the operations were in accordance with international standards and based on the court’s deliberation that the protests were not lawful, that the authorities were duty-bound to maintain law and order,” says Mr. Abhisit.

The Abhisit administration said that it adhered to international precedents with the actions it took against the red shirts. However, there is much opposition to this claim, as red shirts believe that excessive force and inordinately long sentences were used to deter their movement. Widespread calls for an evaluation of the response prompted a dialogue of reconciliation that began under Abhisit and has been continued by the Yingluck administration.

This public call for national reconciliation came in the wake of the violence of 2010. On 19 May 2010, protests erupted inBangkok and across several provinces in Isaan, including Ubon Ratchatani, where the provincial hall was set on fire. Of the photographs taken that day, a few depict Theerawat and three other red shirts standing outside of the hall. No one in the photos appears to be holding anything incendiary. Still, warrants were issued for their arrests. Each defendant was sentenced to 33 years and four months in prison.

Chawee claims, “We all know that there is no evidence that he was the one who burned the building. We cannot understand why the sentence was so serious. In the photo he is just standing there. For us, this is unacceptable.”
Wattana Janthasilp, the UDD lawyer based in Ubon Ratchatani who represented these cases, voices a similar concern. He says, “The nature of the evidence against the defendants was not beyond doubt. The evidence found in the investigation does not show who exactly burnt down the building but prosecutors argued that the defendants exhibited ‘behavior of involvement.’ The defendants were part of the ‘final action’ of the event because they were in proximity closest to the situation.”

Upon their arrest, at least three of the four onlookers were coerced into signing a confession, which each of them later retracted by pleading ‘not guilty’ in court.

According to Chawee, the police used excessive physical force on her son during the interrogation process to compel him to sign a confession.

She says, “He refused to sign the paper, so the police just agitated him to exhaustion. Finally he signed; it took three days and three nights.”

Wassana Mabut, 47, a mother of one of the four convicted, says her daughter, Patthama Moonmil, 24, had a similar experience upon her arrest.

“[The police] told her to sign a piece of paper with lots of words on it. She didn’t read it and she signed it because she was exhausted and because she’s so young, she was very afraid she’d get beaten.”

Standing in front of the Ubon Ratchatani Central Prison, Wasana Mabut reflects on the hardships of her life without her 24-year-old daughter, Patthama, and what it means to have Patthama spend her entire adult life behind bars.

Patcharee Lasua, 53, came home from the market to find that her husband, Somsak Prasaunsau, 56, had been dragged out and forced to sign a confession under duress.

He was originally told that if he signed the confession, he could be released on bail and return to his family. Neither of these promises were fulfilled.

Patcharee Lasua stands in front of her home on the banks of the Mun River in Ubon. Although her house is high up on stilts, flooding this year was unusually high and she had to move. Typically, her husband, Somsak, would have helped to repair damage caused by flooding, but he likely will never help her again: he was imprisoned for 34 years on the charges of arson and terrorism.

“This photo changed my life,” says Patcharee, whose husband was convicted of arson, leaving her family without a provider. Her grandson looks on.

Some consider these individuals to be political prisoners, citing their treatment as a response to their political inclinations rather than their actions. Kwanravee says, “PIC sees red shirt demonstrators as political prisoners because they were arrested and jailed due to their political beliefs or involvement in political activism. In other words, they were fundamentally exercising their human rights: the right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.”

Leaders of the Democrat Party declared emergency law and began labeling red shirts as “terrorists,” further charging the already-heated political atmosphere inThailand. The head of the government-appointed Truth and Reconciliation Commission warned of the inadvisability of using terrorism charges and called for detained red shirt to be treated as suspects, not as convicts.

Despite this recommendation, Prime Minister Abhisit appealed to Bangkok voters in June 2011 not to elect red shirts as they had sought the “intentional destruction of the country,” an act which, he maintained, “constitutes terrorism.”

As a result of the politically charged climate, protesters were convicted in cases that were short of conclusive, yet resulted in excessive sentences. National and international court precedents reveal how unusual these sentences are, comparatively, pressuring Thailand to address these injustices.

In a 1997 Thai arson case, a man was found guilty for staging an attack on a government-run school in the South. He was suspected to be a member of PULO, an illegal terrorist organization, but a confirmation of his membership was never made. His 20-year sentence, passed by the lower court, seemed unaffected by his suspected terrorist ties. Despite these factors, the Supreme Court overturned his case, stating that the evidence against him was not beyond reasonable doubt.

In the United Kingdom, a young man of about Theerawat’s age was convicted of arson for lighting a building on fire during the riots in London in August of this year. The burning resulted in 3.5 million pounds of damage. He was sentenced to four years in prison based on video evidence that clearly shows him running into the building and setting fire to it.

In Bahrain, seven young men near Patthama’s age were sentenced to 25 years in prison in a riot-related arson that resulted in the death of one man. A number of political commentators have voiced that these sentences are unjustly long and attribute them to political motivations.

In the Czech Republic, four neo-Nazis were convicted of arson for an attack on the home of a Roma family that nearly killed a two-year old girl. Three of the men were sentenced to 22 years in prison due to previous criminal offences and for their role in preparing the attack, and the fourth man was charged with 20 years because of his role in the late stages of planning.

Despite that no one was injured in the Ubon Ratchatani arson case, the four red shirts, all first-time offenders, were sentenced to 33 years and four months in prison.

The grief that these individuals’ families feel because of the loss of their loved ones is intensified by the injustice of their situation.

There is a gaping absence in Wassana’s life where Patthhama once was. “It has been a huge change in my life. She was always by my side, helping with everything. You just get used to seeing her running around the house,” she says.

Every week, Wassana waits in line for nearly two hours to deliver food to her daughter at the prison. When she is finally admitted into the visitation room, Wassana is given only 10 minutes to speak with Patthama.

Coming to terms with the fact that her daughter will spend her entire adult life behind bars has been difficult for Wassana. She says, “It’s so sad and terrible because she is a young girl. This was a very big mistake made to a young person. I am scared for my daughter to stay that long.”

Chawee, too, struggles with her son’s reality, so much so that her memory has deteriorated since his imprisonment. She has difficulty recalling the ages of her three sons, where her eldest son–who was also present the day of the fire and has a warrant out for his arrest–has fled to, what the charges brought against Theerawat were, and many basic details of her own life.

When asked how long her son has been imprisoned, pain registers on her face as she struggles to remember.

“This coming May will be two years in prison. I think. I remember that every May will be one more year.”

Despite her emotional instability, Chawee must provide for Theerawat, her youngest son, her mother, and her paralyzed father, while paying off her heavy debt. Chawee worked on someone else’s land during the rice harvest and now turns to local stores, offering to wash dishes or do laundry.

“I am always just trying to run around to find jobs so that I can have money to put in my [youngest son’s] pocket. Anywhere I can find jobs or people to give me money, I must go to them to manage.”

Chawee’s struggle is shared among red shirts. Since her husband’s arrest, the economic problems of Patcharee have compounded.

Patcharee’s family can no longer rely on her husband’s income and must now struggle daily to make ends meet without consistent employment and with grandchildren to care for. After this year’s flood, her ramshackle house became uninhabitable. She has been forced to squat in a house at the whim of the landowner.

“It’s hard to understand how other people like me are living. People come and say they will help but they don’t. I now have to pay interest of 3500 baht every month. Since the annual flood, I can’t pay the monthly interest. For four months [the loan sharks] keep asking when I’ll pay.”

Patcharee believes that her own lack of power stems from her economic status, which played a role in her husband’s unjust sentence. She feels that disadvantaged red shirts are being forced to pay for the actions of an entire movement.

“We are the scapegoats because we are the weakest ones,” she says.

While red shirt families struggle daily with the repercussions of the April-May 2010 protests, other groups have not yet been held liable for their actions. Additionally, actions taken by the government have done little to directly confront this dichotomy.

Kwanravee states, “So far there have been no state officials brought to justice. ‘Independent’ bodies created to investigate human rights violations such as the TRC and the National Human Rights Commission have failed to maintain their independence and impartiality. As a result, what happened in April and May 2010 only contributed to the culture of impunity inThailand.”

Under the Yingluck administration, reconciliation was placed at the top of the national agenda and included the reassessment of the April-May 2010 events. This process will entail bringing to justice those who destroyed property as well as those who destroyed lives.

Since being elected to power, Pheu Thai Party Members of Parliament have provided bail for red shirts awaiting trial. To date, 376 red shirts in Issan have either received bail or have been released from prison. Additionally, many Pheu Thai MPs have given emotional and financial support to red shirts.

Even so, not enough support is reaching red shirts, and not all groups have been held accountable for the April-May 2010 events. Kwanravee says, “What happened to the red shirts has shown how the justice system has failed to uphold the rule of law and guarantee basic human rights of the people as enshrined in international law.”

The Yingluck government has brought a new tone to the national reconciliation discourse. However, these prisoners and their families still face the repercussions of the former administration’s national action. Questions remain about who should be held accountable for the violence and injustices that swept across the country.

Can Thailand move forward when these types of injustices are undermining the reconciliation process?

Every day, Wasana Mabut waits for two hours outside of the prison to drop off food for her daughter. Wasana is allowed to see her daughter for 10 minutes each visit.

The Mun River floods Patcharee’s house annually and her husband, Somsak, spends weeks fixing their home. However, with Somsak in prison, Patcharee has been forced to leave her house and squat in another.

[Authors: Lauren Boas Hayes, Georgetown University; Lisa Goese, MacalesterCollege; Jenny Vainberg, University of Michigan; Sara Weber, Goucher College.]