Sympathy for Ampon has many roots

Sympathy for Ampon has many roots

The passing of lese majeste convict Ampon "Uncle SMS" Tangnoppakul who died in jail while waiting to apply for a royal pardon has stirred up strong emotions among people who have sympathy for him.

This sympathy arises due to many reasons, however. And those varied reasons may serve to inform us of how complex the issues surrounding this death actually are.

There are those who sympathise with the old man, known almost affectionately to some as Ah Kong or "grandfather", simply because of the tragic nature of the end of his life. Here was an old man, a former truck driver who had worked hard to raise his family.

Scrolling through the information and photos available in the media, Ampon was a far cry from a criminal. If anything, he appeared to be an honest, simple grandpa who enjoyed walking his grandchildren to school... a grandpa any of us could easily imagine or identify with.

That the poor, earnest and kindly-looking grandfather suffered from mouth cancer was already a cause for compassion. For this group of sympathisers, it almost doesn't matter what crime Ampon committed that put him behind bars _ he was already deserving of pity.

Another factor that drives compassion for Ah Kong is the perception that he was a victim of the lese majeste law.

Many view the law's punishment of three to 15 years in jail for comments deemed offensive to the monarchy as too harsh, and find the ease with which anybody can sue anybody under the law to be too problematic.

For this group of people, even if Ampon did send the four offensive SMSs _ an act he denied until his death _ he did not deserve to be put in jail for 20 years. For them, Ampon's imprisonment was unnecessary, his death wrongful.

There is yet another group of people who look at the case and see problems with the way his trial was conducted.

Many wonder if the old man, who claimed he did not write well and did not know how to send an SMS, did not receive enough benefit of the doubt.

They question if technical evidence _ from the International Mobile Equipment Identity which is supposed to identify what phone sends out what signals or messages _ was presented and examined in an exhaustive, beyond-any-reasonable-doubt manner.

They also harbour some questions about the whole course of the trial, about whether Ah Kong had in fact been presumed guilty from the start.

Finally, there are people who can't help but feel angry that the old man was left to die in the prison hospital.

The Corrections Department may have come out and defended itself against accusations that it had been negligent in how it treated the sick old man, saying Ampon was cared for and even allowed to receive chemotherapy outside the prison five times last year and twice this year. But will this group of doubters believe in what the authorities say?

I don't think so. For them, the health care provided to prisoners is a central issue in the death of Ampon.

Evidently, all these emotions _ the sadness of seeing the end of the old man's dream of a royal pardon that would allow him to get back to spending time with his grandchildren, the disagreement with the controversial law and the skepticism about the trial process _ have been mixed up and in some cases are boiling over after Ampon's death.

Thus it's not very surprising that a series of pitiless and ill-informed comments made by actress Bongkoj "Tak" Kongmalai, condemning a man who was already dead, would stir up passionate reactions among the people who sympathise with him for whatever reasons.

Their intense emotions finally culminated in a band of angry red shirts _ a group whose sympathies obviously rest with Ampon _ harassing and chasing the actress out of Pattaya where she was filming a project on Saturday night.

As stated, it's understandable that emotions are running high about Ah Kong's death. It's also naturally gratifying to be able to expel people who say things we find offensive out of our sight.

But how far can we go with this simplistic harass-and-expel response?

The same question can be asked about the jailing of Ah Kong in the first place. How far can we go in meting out lengthy jail terms for people who can get sued by anybody on the allegation of offending the monarchy?

The death of Ah Kong has raised a good many questions regarding how kind and just our society has been and should be.

We can't tackle these complicated questions by simply telling people to go live elsewhere.

Atiya Achakulwisut is Deputy Editor, Bangkok Post.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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