Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, the Thai journalist and trade union activist, has been released from prison after serving 7 years for lèse majesté. He was a prisoner of conscience. He was convicted in a Thai Kangaroo court for publishing two articles in an anti-establishment magazine that made negative references to the crown. On principle, Somyot always refused to admit any guilt and he spent his time in prison trying to organise the library and act as a leader and mentor to other prisoners.
On being released, Somyot indicated that he would campaign for the rights of prisoners and try to improve their conditions. He has told stories about the conditions in jail. The prisoners have to wear chains on both legs which weigh 5 kg. The prisoners have to clean the chains regularly otherwise they go rusty and people’s legs become infected. There is also a chronic shortage of bedding. According to Somyot, standard practices in jail are mainly designed to reduce the humanity of prisoners. “If you are in jail you are treated like an animal”.
When I moved back to Thailand in 1996, in order to become a politics lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, I headed straight for meetings and gatherings of the Thai labour movement. I had been an active socialist and trade unionist in Britain before that. As I started talking to women factory workers from the Rungsit area, I would start to hear the name Somyot Pruksakasemsuk.
Rungsit trade union activists would explain to me that Somyot had been a very clever and skilful trade union organiser and that he had led the unionisation of many textile factories in Rungsit. Union activists risked being sacked if they were known to management as being involved in building the union and Somyot had many ideas about building. Workers told me that he would advise them how to leave union leaflets in secretly in strategic places such as toilets and dining rooms. Eventually many unions won recognition.
There are still many political prisoners sentenced to jail under lèse majesté in Thailand and we must not forget them.
The lèse majesté law in Thailand represents a gross attack on the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom. It is a fundamental attack on democracy carried out by the military, royalist judges and bureaucrats, and all the political elites, including Taksin and Pua Thai. Lèse majesté prisoners are tried in secret courts and denied bail. The royalist judges claim that the offense is “too serious” and “a threat to national security”. Thai dictatorships have long used the excuse that their opponents were seeking to “overthrow the monarchy” in order to kill unarmed demonstrators or throw people into jail. Jail terms for lèse majesté are draconian. Meanwhile, armed anti-democracy thugs and state killers continue to enjoy freedom of action and impunity.
The lèse majesté law in Thailand is an authoritarian law which has been designed primarily to protect the interests of the un-elected elites, especially the military. It is used hand in hand with the computer crimes law and the contempt of court law to stifle full debate and accountability in society. Lèse majesté and the computer crimes laws have resulted in many outspoken critics going to prison or leaving the country and they have also resulted in the systematic censorship of books and the internet. Government departments, both civilian and military, have been set up to spy on citizens who use the internet, and those involved with radio and television, with a view to prosecuting citizens under the lèse majesté law. People have also been encouraged to spy on others and report them to the authorities.
The truly repressive nature of lèse majesté can be highlighted by the fact that some Thai citizens are too afraid to refuse to stand up at the cinema when the king’s anthem is played. It is an image that would not look out of place in Nazi Germany or North Korea.
As Somyot left the prison, he gave a defiant three-fingered, anti-dictator salute. He clearly has not been crushed.