Mor Yong's death breeds mistrust

Mor Yong's death breeds mistrust

Authorities can say whatever they want about the cause of Mor Yong's death. But they cannot expect people to believe it. There is no need trying to get frank opinions from people face to face, however. No one speaks their minds with strangers anymore; it has become too dangerous.

Suriyan "Mor Yong" Sucharitpolwong may be guilty in the eyes of many, but we cannot deny that his life and death mirror the state and psyche of our society.  

Honestly, I never paid attention to the late fortune-teller and spirit medium when he was alive, despite his fame.

Call me arrogant for not believing in fortune-telling. For me, the huge fame once enjoyed by Mor Yong (and the booming business of mediumship across the country) is but a symptom of a society ridden by anxieties and fear about the future -- a society where formal rules break down, where cronyism reigns and your future is determined by other forces beyond your control.

Proponents of state religion take note. Mor Yong's life informed us the most powerful creed in Thailand is not Buddhism, but superstition. His death was equally telling, if not more, about the state of politics. It exposes the widening credibility gap between state and people, and the breakdown of the justice system. 

More importantly, it underscores the climate of fear in our country. Of course, Mor Yong was not the first person to die or "commit suicide" under mysterious circumstances while in police custody. But other lese majeste convicts did not have his fame and public recognition.

Lese majeste suspect Pol Col Akrawut Limrat killed himself by jumping off a building. His body was immediately cremated without any traditional religious ceremony. Pol Maj Prakom Warunprapa was found hanging in his prison cell -- a suicide, said authorities. He was also cremated immediately.

Those mysterious deaths fanned rumours about a similar fate for Mor Yong after his arrest. Authorities did not only deny the rumours, but they also made scoffing remarks about Mor Yong pretending to be sick. When Justice Minister Gen Paiboon Koomchaya announced his death on Monday -- two days after he died -- the public was stunned, then fearful.

The official explanation, that Mor Yong died from a blood infection, may well be true, but few find it credible. When rumours circulating about a death are eventually confirmed, distrust grows and fear spreads. If the regime does not change its tack, Mor Yong's death will grow into something even more sinister.

Like other lese majeste convicts, Mor Yong was cremated hurriedly without religious rites. The media was also barred from the cremation and taking photos.

The regime should have known better than to create such a climate of fear and public distrust. They want to protect the monarchy and punish those who abuse royal links. The problem is how things are done, and it is stirring public scepticism.

The regime should also realise the whole world is watching closely. If the judicial procedures appear opaque, their protective mission will backfire.  There are several questions the government needs to answer to clear public doubt. For example, why do lese majeste suspects have to undergo the humiliating procedure of shaving their heads? Is this even legal?

According to the law, the death of a suspect while in custody requires both an autopsy and court investigation. The court has the jurisdiction to rule about the suspect's cause of death -- not corrections authorities or medical doctors. Why has this rule been ignored? And why the hasty cremations and press ban?

In such high-profile lese majeste cases, suspects need proper surveillance. Their health should be well looked after; their testimonies are crucial to the regime's efforts to prevent further abuse of royal links. Authorities are to blame if people think such fatal lapses were intentional.

When I asked my house helper what her friends at the som tam joint think about what happened with Mor Yong, she lowered her voice. 

"They have their opinions, but they no longer say it in public areas," she said. "Police officers and officials also come to eat there, so people are afraid. The danger is real, they say."

I wish I could say they are wrong. But I have to admit with a heavy heart they are right.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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