The deafening silence of those defying orders

Activists and academics who disagree with the army's control of the country have either fled in fear or been cowed into keeping quiet, but some are determined to keep speaking out in the name of justice

‘Was three years in jail not enough? Why are they still chasing me, linking me with things that I don’t know about,” complained Thanthawut Taweewarodomkul, a former lese majeste convict who has been living in exile since the junta summonsed him in the first weeks after the coup.

asked in for a chat: Thanapol Eowsakul, editor of 'Fah Diew Gan' magazine reports to the junta. His arrest shortly after the coup sparked concern from human rights groups.

Mr Thanthawut, 42, is one of about 60 people who fled the country when ordered by the National Council for Peace and Order to report for “attitude adjustment”. Some fled simply because they believed they would be locked up. Of the 60, 20 have since had their passports revoked.

According to the Internet Dialogue on Law Reform, 563 people were summonsed in the two months following the coup in May, and 227 were detained and charged with offences ranging from defying the NCPO order to report, to lese majeste.

Of those summonsed and/or charged, 381 were linked to the Pheu Thai Party or the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, 51 were linked to the Democrat Party or the People’s Democratic Reform Council, 134 were academics, activists, DJs or radio hosts and 73 were unaffiliated anti-coup protesters.

But interested lawyers and researchers said there are probably another 100 or more who were “invited” to meet with different army regional commands, including Bangkok-based Thanapol Eowsakul, editor of Fah Diew Gan magazine, and Chiang Mai red shirt president Pichit Tamool, who were repeatedly asked to tone down their public and social network comments about the military management of the country.

gagged: Former education minister Chaturon Chaisaeng, third left, was granted bail on condition he must not take part in political activity gatherings or incite public disorder.

The 60 who fled the country now all face courts-martial if they return, like others defying NCPO orders to appear, including former education minister Chaturon Chaisaeng, Nitirat leader Worachet Pakeerut and Sombat Boonngamanong, the leader of the pro-democracy group Red Sunday. Twenty others will stand trial in civilian courts.

The surge of lese majeste lawsuits during the past two months has raised grave concerns among human rights groups, including the National Human Rights Commission sub-committee on civil and political rights.

And although the NCPO no longer announces summons to appear before it on TV, it has asked many universities, including those in Khon Kaen, Maha Sarakham and Ubon Ratchathani, as well as state and private colleges nationwide, to spread the word to activist students and lecturers not to become involved in any political activity.

Dissidents who have chosen to remain in Thailand have been intimidated into silence, including being harassed by phone, having their homes and offices searched and placed under surveillance, and by having their internet usage monitored.

Some have said the invocation of martial law on May 20, and the announcement of the coup two days later, have not resulted in grave human rights violations, massacres or enforced disappearances, and that those on the run were only minority voices.

The media, which has mostly focused on what happens in Bangkok, have refrained from investigating, or simply ignored the plight of those being harassed, said Toom (not her real name), who works for a foreign company in Thailand and went to demonstrate in support of the US condemnation of the coup.

But now most exiles or those in hiding are more or less on their own.

“The Organisation of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy [led by former Pheu Thai Party leader Charupong Ruangsuwan] might not move at the speed many people would like. The movement has no real leadership as Pheu Thai and the UDD are crippled and most of their leaders do not want to see bloodshed in the country. We therefore have to start the democratisation campaign from square one,” said Suda Rungkupan, 48, a former Chulalongkorn University linguistics lecturer, now in hiding after receiving a summons from the NCPO.

in hiding: Thai anti-coup activist and Red Sunday leader Sombat Boonngamanong gives the sign of resistance to tyranny made popular in ‘The Hunger Games’ as he is led into detention.

Ms Suda hoped people would see the coup as just part of a sequence of events; there were preludes to it happening before the May 7 removal from office of Yingluck Shinawatra by the Constitutional Court.

“It’s a slow-motion film, we could not simply say this was another bloodless coup since there were already some 30 deaths and hundreds of injuries throughout the six-month PDRC Bangkok Shut Down rally,” Ms Suda said.

She noted that the elite royalist establishment has opted to target mid-level leaders such as her comrade in arms, the poet activist Kamol Duangphasuk (aka Mai Nueng Kor Kunthee) who was shot and killed on April 23.

“In fact, they had started to use terror tactics to scare people away from peaceful mass rallies in support of the ruling party since the Rajamangala Stadium rally,” said Ms Suda.

The red shirt movement was repressed by such tactics both before and after the coup, including the closure of red shirt supporting radio stations, she noted.

But the globalising nature of technology has already empowered the people. “The red shirts have already been enlightened in the past several years. Now they just have to stay quiet and wait for the right time to speak out, probably next year,” said the former UDD spokesperson.

For Mr Thanthawut, his self-imposed exile is like a second imprisonment, since he does not have the freedom to do anything easily. He was released after receiving a royal pardon in July last year, three years, three months and 15 days into a 13-year sentence for lese majeste.

“I don’t know how many more years it will be before I can go home as a free man. I’m quite disappointed by the unfounded attempt to link me with a red shirt group in the US. In fact, I learned a sad lesson in jail. They abandoned me completely, so why would I get involved or engage with any of them again?” Mr Thanthawut said.

But he said the coup and the purge against former lese majeste prisoners (including Surachai Danwattananusorn of Red Siam) have pushed him to engage in activism again.

His own family has sympathy with his plight. “They see how hard I’ve tried to make a living after my release from prison. Just as I’m able to stand on my own two feet again, I’m pushed back down by the junta,” said Mr Thanthawut, who faces missing his teenage son’s birthday in October yet again.

Mr Thanthawut has just sent an appeal to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, complaining about the military harassment to his family, especially his elderly parents.

Kritsuda Kunasen, 29, whose month-long detention by the NCPO was the subject of Human Rights Watch appeal to the world, has moved to Europe. She was involved in distributing financial support from abroad to red shirt prisoners’ families, and was arrested weeks after the coup in Chon Buri.

Her voice from exile will be heard this weekend when an interview with her is posted on YouTube. It is expected to shed new light on the situation in Thailand and is designed to show the real face behind the smiling facade of the coup.

Many red shirt activists, including 51-year-old Rung Sira, a poet-cum-activist and now lese majeste prisoner, believed the future of Thailand’s democratisation was in the hands of individuals.

“The genie is out of the bottle, it’s not easy put it back in again. The clock is ticking forwards, not backwards,” said Sutachai Yimprasert, a Chulalongkorn University assistant professor of history, and another red shirt sympathiser who has chosen to stay in Thailand.

on the list: Thanthawut Taweewarodomkul, convicted of lese majeste, Chiang Mai red-shirt president Pichit Tamool and Nitirat leader Worachet Pakeerut.

still under pressure: Former lese majeste convict Surachai Danwattananusorn, better known as Surachai Sae Dan, was ordered to appear before the NCPO. photos: bangkok post archive

About the author

columnist
Writer: Achara Ashayagachat
Position: Senior reporter on socio-political issues