The story of a lese majeste prisoner

The story of a lese majeste prisoner

Sometimes there's no need for commentary, the story speaks for itself. Allegations were made by Thanthawut Taweewarodomkul during a seminar last Sunday, recorded and put on YouTube, that ordinary red shirt prisoners and red shirt lese majeste convicts in particular are physically abused by guards and other prisoners; ignored by leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD); and at the mercy of Pheu Thai-appointed lawyers who didn't know and didn't care about their cases.

Mr Thanthawut received a royal pardon after spending three years, three months and five days of his 13-year sentence in Bangkok Remand Prison. The seminar came just eight days after his release, of which he said, "the air outside is so much better than the air inside [prison]".

Mr Thanthawut, 38, was a designer for the allegedly anti-monarchist Nor Por Chor USA website. His prison sentences were 10 years for allowing comments deemed to be insulting to the monarchy to appear on the website, violating Section 112 of the Criminal Code, or the lese majeste law, and three years for violating the Computer Crime Act.

At the beginning of the talk, Mr Thanthawut said he would not comment on the monarchy or the lese majeste law itself, asking the audience to understand his unspoken reasons. Instead, he chose to discuss issues which may come as a surprise to some, and may simply confirm the thinking of others.

On the issue of bail, Mr Thanthawut alleged that for ordinary people, not just lese majeste or red shirt defendants, it is nearly impossible to receive.

"Only people with titles or good economic status receive bail," he said, adding later, "there is no standard of justice in this country." 

Two things Mr Thanthawut said he would have to adjust to as a free man are eating regularly and learning to sleep in the dark, after more than three years of sleeping with the lights on, as this was a prison rule.

Mr Thanthawut alleged that lese majeste prisoners suffer physical abuse at the instigation of the guards, and sometimes directly from the guards themselves. Lese majeste convicts were sent to Zone 8, reserved for the most dangerous criminals.

"Go to Zone 8, and you're mine," Mr Thanthawut said one prison guard told him. As soon as he stepped into Zone 8, he said, he was attacked by multiple prisoners.

"I can't describe how afraid I was. They were all big and scary. All I could do was wai and cry, and ask them to stop."

Some other disturbing comments: "The guard would line us [lese majeste convicts] up,  and slap our faces down the line. It was a humiliating experience.

"The prison authority's attitude is a green-light signal for the rest of the prisoners that says they could do anything to us."

Mr Thanthawut also claimed he was told in a threatening way not to tell any outsiders about the physical abuse. He also made reference to another lese majeste prisoner, the late Ampol Tangnoppakul, otherwise known as Ah Gong or Uncle SMS, who died serving his sentence.

Mr Thanthawut said Ah Gong was not physically abused (perhaps because he was too old and frail), but he was made to work constructing 500 paper drinking cones per day, which required him to sit on the floor, with a bad back, all day. Mr Thanthawut credited other prisoners for secretly helping Ah Gong to make the cones.

Earlier this year, after the death of Ah Gong, Mr Thanthawut said lese majeste prisoners were moved to Zone 1, where conditions were better, for which he credited the Pheu Thai government.

Mr Thanthawut then told of how imprisoned red shirt leaders all have "fan clubs", whose members visit them often and shower them with gifts. Meanwhile, he said, the other 200 or 300 red shirt prisoners are neglected. He said representatives of the UDD visited them only four times.  

"Are we not red shirts too?" Mr Thanthawut asked.

"Some of us didn't have shoes. Some didn't have pants [that fit]. There were a lot of hardships."

Of assistance from the Pheu Thai Party, he said, "Pheu Thai MPs came to visit us one time, all dressed up and behaving distinguished.

"We were herded to welcome them. They came only one time in three years. They gave us 2,000 baht each. One meal each. One pack of amenities each. Done."

Thanthawut said that it is up to prisoners to organise and ask for anything. He alleged that neither the UDD nor Pheu Thai even have the names of the ordinary red shirt prisoners. He and his friends made a list of their names themselves.

"They [UDD and Pheu Thai] weren't prepared for anything. Everything we got, we had to do ourselves from the inside," he said, referring to prisoners' successful efforts to receive financial aid from Thaksin Shinawatra.  

Mr Thanthawut also spoke of how lawyers appointed by Pheu Thai to help red shirt prisoners were negligent, citing a few examples, including his own.

"The first time I met my lawyers was in court," he said, adding that he had to raise his hand and ask the judge how he should proceed.  Mr Thanthawut said his lawyers didn't know anything about his case or anything about his witnesses, as they had never met to discuss the case.

After that Mr Thanthawut was introduced to Arnon Numpa, who was also Ah Gong's lawyer. He took over the case, and Mr Thanthawut credited him with helping to improve prison conditions for lese majeste prisoners, as well as buying them food and other amenities.

"I feel hurt every time I see [red shirt] leaders on TV talking about this and that, and about marching again," he said.

"I want to tell them, if you're not ready, then don't. If they [ordinary red shirt members] go to prison, can you take care of them? Do you have lawyers for them? The 'Funds for Justice' programme that you said you've created to help us, is it really helping us?

"It hurts when I see them [red shirt leaders] demanding ministerial positions.

"It hurts when I see them happy with their children. Holding birthday parties. Having a good time. Receiving titles. Walking behind Prime Minister Poo [Yingluck Shinawatra]."

He posed a rhetorical question to the red shirt leaders: "Have you ever asked us on the inside [of prison] how we feel?

"One time, when the [red shirt] leaders were first imprisoned, there were two leaders walking into Zone 8. I was so happy I almost cried. I walked up to them to shake their hands, saying how happy I was to see them. But then they told somebody to come and tell me to stay away from them [because Mr Thanthawut was convicted of lese majeste]. 

"Knowing I was unhappy, later they tried to make amends by inviting me for lunch. But the feeling was already lost," he said, adding later, "They were the ones who were getting ready to become members of parliament."

Describing how he feels he has been treated by UDD leaders and Pheu Thai, Mr Thanthawut said, "They used us." Mr Thanthawut ended his talk by pleading for assistance for other red shirt prisoners.

Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at voranaiv@bangkokpost.co.th.

Voranai Vanijaka

Bangkok Post columnist

Voranai Vanijaka is a columnist, Bangkok Post.

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