Someone goes to prison after a stranger records them criticizing the monarchy. Someone else is turned in by their own brother for remarks made in the privacy of their home. An elderly man goes to prison for scrawling graffiti in a men’s restroom at a shopping mall.
A new book presents readers these and other cases in a brief but disturbing anthology of 22 lese majeste cases from the past decade. The 10 writers who contributed to the short volume, published in Thai by a legal reform group, seeks to put human faces to these cases. But depending on one’s political perspective, “Room for Rent: No. 112,” either reads as a cautionary tale or litany of deserved sufferings.
Since May 2014, Thailand under the military junta has seen the prosecution of more than 60 new lese majeste cases. The book, published by the Internet Law Reform Dialogue, or iLaw, details some of these new cases but includes older ones as well.
The writers note in the preface that they do not expect to change everyone’s mind about the law but at least get them to see the 22 suspects and convicts as human.
The slim volume is filled with dramatic accounts. It’s worth noting, as the preface explains, that some of the names have been changed and that – other than in two cases – no family names are revealed. This says a lot about the enduring stigma lingering over anyone charged or convicted of the controversial crime, prosecution of which often entails the refusal to grant bail and the use of secret trials. The maximum punishment is 15 years in prison, per offense. Except for a few famous cases, readers can’t be sure if the names used in the stories are real, as the writers do not specify one way or the other.
Brother Against Brother, Passenger Against Driver
Among the more disturbing accounts of lese majeste cases is the one against a man identified as Yutthapoom. His brother claims the man said abusive words against the king when the king’s image appeared on TV one evening, and he found in their home a CD on which his brother had written something defamatory against the monarchy. Yuttahpoom denied all charges. Despite testimony from their mother that there was deep-rooted bad blood between the two, the plaintiff’s admission they were in conflict and the court’s inability to prove whose handwriting was on the disc, Yutthapoon ended up spending 11 months and three weeks in prison before the case was dismissed in September 2013.
“This case added to the climate of fear about peacefully debating [the monarchy] in Thai society. It pushed everything related to the king to become so sensitive that it couldn’t even be uttered between family members,” the book notes on page 99.
Then there’s Bangkok taxi driver Yuthasak, who ended up being charged after he made what was deemed a critical comment against the monarchy in a verbal debate with a passenger. The passenger recorded the conversation and Yutthasak was subsequently arrested soon after the May 2014 coup. Pleading guilty, he was given a reduced sentence in August 2014 from five to two and a half years. Another cautionary tale.
More familiar names such as Somyot Prueksakasemsuk and Tom Dundee are included in the anthology. In an attempt to humanize Somyot, a former editor of pro-Redshirt magazines, the writer approached the story through the travail of Somyot’s son fighting in vain for his dad. All is well except the chapter failed to mention that Somyot was originally sentenced to 10 years in prison – it was just reduced Monday to seven – for articles he claimed were not written by him and were based on fictitious characters construed by the judges as a reference to the Thai monarchy. You don’t get away with fiction in Thailand under the law.
As for famous Redshirt singer Tom Dundee, 58, aka Thanat Thanawatcharanon, the story was told through his new wife. It ends with her learning he’d been sentenced in June to seven and a half years for comments made at a Redshirt rally, saying she will wait until his love is freed. Thanat is serving two lese majeste sentences, a combined 10 years and 10 months. The chapter didn’t fail to capture the eccentricity of the sentence which includes judges’ order that Thanat planted trees in honor of the king after completing his time in prison.
Updating the cases to the present, the book notes how since the coup, military courts have been used against those charged under the lese majeste law and the impact of speed-up justice processes under the military. Several cases in the book noted how those charged under the law were very quickly conducted, many in secret, if those accused confessed.
The chance of being granted bail by the military court prove to be more difficult. If you are wrongly charged, be prepared to spend a period in remand prison. This happened to Jaruwan, who was accused of breaking the law through her Facebook posts despite the lack of clear evidence. She was arrested in the months after the coup, on February 2015. It took 85 days of jail time before military court judges dismissed the case. The writer noted that in a country where tens of millions use Facebook to communicate and express themselves, “this could have happened to any Facebook user”.
There’s no shortage of humanizing the lese majeste prisoners in the book. Will readers become sympathetic if they are royalists who support the law? It is doubtful. If you are a die-hard ultra-royalist you will naturally defend the lese majeste law as necessary and what happened to these 22 people in the book will read more like a deserving result for the bad karma they made against the revered monarchic institution.
Tear-jerking narration abounds in the book but less so sound arguments making the case for the right to free expression. Perhaps it was the author’s conscious choice, as the closest we get comes from third parties.
“We only have different thinking [about the monarchy]. Different thinking doesn’t cause people to die. It only induces intelligence,” the book quotes either Tom Dundee or Thanat.
No matter what one thinks of the lese majeste law and prisoners of conscience, the book is a valuable record on the impact of the law under Article 112 of the Criminal Code. Posterity, decades if not centuries from now, may remember it as exotic and disturbing, like accounts of slavery read about in centuries past and far away.
Intentionally or not, a note of stoic acceptance despite a long sentence was recorded on page 112 of the 168-page book which was funded by Germany’s Heinrich Boll Foundation. It was the voice of lese majeste convict who goes by the name of Charnvit. The 60-year-old man was sentenced to 6 years in prison in December 2015 for penning and distributing leaflets deemed as attacking the monarchy.
When asked by the writer after learning about his fate, Charnvit who regarded writing political leaflets as a “political operation” that citizens should produced replied: “Never mind. It’s not that different inside [the prison] or outside. The only difference is the size of the cage.”