If Somsak's crazy, why get so mad?
From heckling to death threats, from trolling to live bullets. From malignant distribution of the enemy’s home address and licence plate number, to good old calls for his head, both real and metaphorical. Burn the witch at the stake: the “punishment” for thoughtcrime in the land of crooked smiles is severe.
Actually, it’s slightly more than thoughtcrime that Somsak Jeamteerasakul has committed in the eyes of his foes. He writes what he thinks — in books of course, but lately also on his Facebook. As fate and coincidence would have it, a week after the deputy military spokesperson came out to warn Mr Somsak, a history lecturer at Thammasat University, about his “socially inappropriate” online posts referring to the monarchy, mysterious gunmen fired several rounds into Mr Somsak’s house while he was inside. The army has been pondering whether to hand the lecturer the legal noose of lese majeste — the contentions Section 112 — while another army spokesperson has called for “social measures” against those who speak ill of the revered institution.
It’s a cruel irony that while everyone — of all colours and inclinations — is parroting the true worth of democracy, we’re also living in a time when thinking and writing can be a crime. Hit-and-run suspects get bail (remember the Red Bull heir?), suspected murderers get bail (remember Kamnan Poh?), but thinking aloud on highly sensitive topics, like Mr Somsak did, could get unknown thugs firing at your house, or get you thrown in jail without bail — like Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was after he was convicted under Section 112.
In a place and time like ours, thinking can be worse than killing, and the charge of thoughtcrime, to expand from how Orwell first defined it, is slapped on those who dare flirt with disbelief, challenge, stir up controversies, and ask difficult questions that we hate to answer, though because the sun rises and the moon orbits the earth, we’ll have to answer them anyway.
Mr Somsak has been writing about the monarchy for years. His direct, judicious, yet sometimes challenging, style has earned him thousands of likes and certainly more hates. He’s an influential thinker on the country’s most flammable subject, and though his interest — some would say obsession — has been known for years through his articles, the sharp extremes of our post-Sept 19 world has thrust him, or his thinking, into the spotlight. A case in point took place in January 2013, when the lecturer appeared — for the first and probably the last time — on national television, a Thai PBS programme, and despite his relatively mild, measured and perfectly legal tone, he created such an uproar that protesters marched to the station demanding the banning of the last tape of the five-night series. They succeeded. The host of the show, Pinyo Trisuriyathamma, resigned.
Ironically, Mr Somsak is the guy who would be most suited to wear the Guy Fawkes mask, but who is loathed intensely by the Thai Guy Fawkes mask wearers. True, a few journalists and thinkers have been sent “a warning” too, and yet what’s scary in Mr Somsak’s case, and proof of our descent towards cold-bloodedness, is that after the news about the shooting at his house broke, a lot of people gloated with satisfaction. You don’t have to agree with everything, or anything, that he’s written. You can be annoyed or angry, you can cuss and curse — and you can always stop reading — but to wish someone dead because of something he writes is even more socially inappropriate, to borrow the military term, not to say downright horrendous.
In another strange irony, Mr Somsak’s take-no-prisoners comments on politics and power-play intrigues — at least when he’s not mentioning the monarchy directly — have made him a unique observer of our political madness. The superficial label him “a red-shirt scholar”, but since the government’s amnesty bill folly and the subsequent anti-Thaksin protests, Mr Somsak has emerged as a lucid voice in the chaos by criticising both the government and the mob (though mostly the former), so much that for a while, whistle-blowers were sharing his Facebook rants, while hardcore red shirts barked at him. His is not a simple non-partisan case; it is a clear example of how complex and nuanced our current conflict is.
Too bad that when it comes to one of the most important issues, the atmosphere is unforgiving. By bringing what has been whispered into open conversation, the man has been marked. His critics sometimes call Mr Somsak a ranting madman. In that case, we shouldn’t be so upset by what a madman has to say — unless, of course, we’re living in a madhouse and the most maniacal ranting turns out to be the sanest of all.
Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.