Update from Thailand Part 2
This is the transcript of an interview carried out by Prachatai news with Somyot’s wife, Joop, on International Women’s Day.
Several international organisations have been actively campaigning for Somyos and freedom of expression, but are there organisations in the country engaged in this, such as labour or media organisations? There has been some argument about whether he qualifies as a member of the media or not. Do they consider Somyos’ case at all?
Actually, this [campaign] should have started at the domestic level first, but the situation is not like that, because in Thailand, organisations differ greatly in terms of ideas and they do not stick to [democratic and human rights] principles either. The imprisonment of people who produce books or media for example is not right at all on principle. Therefore, if every organisation stuck to its principles, they should have started movements or campaigns against this. However, in Thailand Somyos was prejudged as being linked to Thaksin and his magazine as being sponsored by Thaksin because its title was ‘Voice of Thaksin’. He therefore deserved to be prosecuted and punished.
This is mixing up individuals with principles. In fact, one’s rights should be undeniable no matter who exercises them and what is wrong should be wrong regardless of who the wrongdoers are.
Most Thai media don’t talk about the use of law to restrain freedom of expression. Since Somyos produced alternative media, which seemed to be affiliated with the red shirts or Thaksin, nearly all media organisations in Thailand chose to remain silent. Personnel from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) came to look into the matter after we issued a complaint to them since it’s their duty, but nothing more than that has been done. Other organisations are still unsure and hesitant about whether to support him or not. In the end, it turned out that if a person is linked to some issue, it doesn’t matter what happens to that person.
Is it because they are afraid that they would be classified as red shirt supporters or accused of being partial?
Possibly. As I see it, Thai society is currently very divided when it comes to [political] ideas. Principles are not being upheld and people are being labelled on an individual basis. Therefore, if Somyos participated in some political movements, coupled with the notion that he is a red shirt and used to be one of the second rank of United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) key leaders, he might have already been prejudged as a wrongdoer. His name was even listed in the anti-monarchy network diagram, so he was automatically linked to it.
Could you tell us about Somyos’ long involvement in the labour movement and the point when he started to become involved in political activities?
Actually, he was a labour activist since he was a student. Three or four years after the 6th October 1976 (Thammasat University massacre), he went to work for the Union for Civil Liberty (UCL). At that time, workers who were heavily exploited and repressed were labourers around Om Noi and Om Yai municipalities (municipalities in Samut Sakhon and Nakhon Pathom provinces near Bangkok), so he went to work with them, organising labour law classes to teach about labour relations and how to negotiate.
After that he founded another labour group with workers around the Rangsit area (an industrial area in Pathum Thani Province near Bangkok), which was called YCW (Young Christian Women). The group members were mostly female workers in clothing factories who formed a group to campaign over low wages and firings. In those days, around 1982 to 1987, a lot of factories started to lay off workers.
After that, he established an office of his own, called the Information and Training Centre for Workers, which was an NGO. Then there was the Kader factory fire, which killed a lot of workers and where the factory owners refused to compensate the workers (the Kader factory fire happened on 10 May 1988, killing 188 people and seriously injuring around 500). At that time, he joined other workers’ organisations in a movement to call for reasonable worker compensation. After that, he shifted direction to work on health issues, focusing on the spread of HIV among workers.
I think he became attracted to democratic principles, Marxism, and class struggle since he was a student. So when the political situation changed and there was an illegitimate coup d’état, which suppressed and violated the rights of the lower class, he came out to oppose it. In 1992, he also participated in activities against the military regime, but he didn’t do much at that time because he focused mostly on labour issues.
After the 2006 coup, he participated in movements against the coup, but at the same time he was working on labour rights. He was writing articles for magazines and other publications about issues related to labour, such as low wage campaigns and appeals to the state and various factories. After he closed the Labour Information Centre, he engaged in activism through publications, founding his own publishing house to publish magazines about politics and society called ‘Siam Paradigm’. He was the editor and publisher of Siam Paradigm at the same time.
When the magazine was closed he became an editor for ‘Voice of Thaksin’. After it was banned by the authorities, it was renamed ‘Red Power’ and he was still editor of the magazine when he was arrested in 2011. Actually, prior to that, he once was arrested and taken to Adison Military Camp (a military base in the northeastern province of Saraburi) under the order of the CRES (Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situation, a special governmental organisation established to control and maintain security during the red shirt protests in Bangkok on April-May 2010).
When he was arrested and taken to Adison Military Camp for 21 days in 2010, what was the situation like?
I was worried of course. I was working overseas at that time and had to go to Singapore every month. When he was arrested, I was in Singapore. He went to report to the police station the morning after the CRES issued an order against him and then he was arrested and briefly detained. After his release, he was still working for ‘Red Power’ and participating in political activities, such as making speeches and organising rallies. He was in the political group called ‘24 June Democracy Group’. It was an association of ordinary people who came together to organise seminars and rallies. He also organised group tours to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and would travel with the groups every two to three months. On the day when he was arrested under this charge [lèse majesté], he had organised a tour to Cambodia and told me that he would not be home for three to four days.
How did you feel after you knew that he was charged with offenses under Article 112 of the Criminal Code [lèse majesté law]?
At that time, I didn’t think that it would be so serious because he had been doing political and social activities all his life. Actually, he was accused of criminal defamation before for defaming Gen Saprang Kalayanamitr (a retired officer of the Royal Thai Army who was one of the army commanders involved in coup 2006), so I thought that this kind of case would not be so severe. He is not a murderer after all. At worst, the court might demand a fine or hand down a month of jail term suspended or detain him at a military camp or something like that, but it wasn’t like that at all in reality.
When did you feel that it would be serious?
When he was put into custody in prison after which I regularly visited him. At that time, a lot of people went to visit him. The visitors filled the visiting room nearly every day and nobody felt anything much because there was a lot of encouragement from all his supporters. This was until he was indicted by the prosecutor. At first, I wasn’t sure if he would be indicted or not and thought that he wouldn’t because he was the editor not the writer, but when the custody period was about to expire the prosecutor indicted him and he had to stay in jail without being able to come home.
A month after that, the court accepted the case, the provincial courts of four different provinces began the witness examination hearings under the Bangkok Criminal Court’s order and I had to travel to those courts to follow up the trial hearings. At that time, I thought that we might win the case and it would be dismissed.
On the day that the verdict was scheduled to be read, I still had hope that he would come home, but turned out that the court sentenced him to 10 years for offences under Article 112 (lèse majesté law). Added to the year’s suspended jail term for defaming Gen Saprang, it became 11 years.
This means that while he was under custody during the investigative period, the period before indictment and the trials, Somyos had hope that he would win the case. However, when the verdict was read, did it change him and your family?
He must have felt sad and disappointed because he was very hopeful during the weeks before the verdict was about to be reached. Actually, the court scheduled the verdict reading in December, but then it was postponed to January if I’m not mistaken because the judge was changed. I felt that the court might prosecute him at that time because the court prosecuted [suspects] of every similar case prior to that. Evidence in those [lèse majesté] cases did not seem so reasonable, but the court still punished them and the fact that he is a red shirt that belongs to the opposite end of the political spectrum to the then Democrat Party administration only added to it. However, I did not think that it would be 10 years. I thought at worst it would be three years.
For him, he was confident that the case would be dismissed. Before the ruling, he donated all his clothes and things to others because he was sure that he would win the case.
On the day of the ruling, there were so many observers that the courtroom couldn’t accommodate them all. The courtroom had to be changed three times from a small courtroom on 7th floor to the 8th and then to the biggest one on the 9th floor. There must have been 200-300 people. The seats were all occupied. After the court sentenced him to 11 years’ imprisonment, he couldn’t believe it and it took him several months to recollect himself. After he got better, we talked and he decided to continue to fight the case.
At that time most similar cases [lèse majesté cases] did not seem so promising, and most defendants chose to plead guilty and ask for a royal pardon. Why did he choose to fight the case?
First of all, I think that he didn’t do anything wrong. This is one of the main reasons why we decided to fight the case. Pleading guilty would mean that we accepted that we have committed a crime, but Somyos believes that he is innocent. We must understand that he was charged to bear the alleged crime instead of the writer. Therefore, he was sure that he didn’t commit any crime. Secondly, he believes that what he did was not a crime at all, so pleading guilty is unacceptable to him.
Many of his friends in prison who chose to plead guilty were released. Does this give him some discomfort?
In reality, the discomfort resurfaces all the time. There were people trying to convince him [to plead guilty] since the first day of his arrest. Everybody, including the DSI [Department of Special Investigation] themselves told him to just give in because there was no way to fight the case. [They tried] both to talk him into it and threatened him. The Pheu Thai Party [former elected administration under then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra] offered that if he just gave in, they would begin the procedure to request a royal pardon as soon as possible. Also, all the other prisoners were telling him not to fight the case. They would say that all the other lèse majesté defendants gave in and that it was stupid and pointless to fight the case. People said many different things. Some came and told me that he should give in, so that he would come out sooner.
Do you feel that you want him to give in?
In fact, no. I believe that what he has decided is right. I agree with him that if we are not guilty, we shall stand firm to our cause because the day when we tell others that we confess, it would become our crime immediately.
Most importantly, he is not being harmed or experiencing ill treatment much under the current circumstances. We also receive support from others who urge us to continue to fight. Also, I don’t have economic problems. Without him, I can still take care of our family, so I support him in his struggle. At least, he doesn’t have to worry about family matters. One of the reasons why many families [of lèse majesté suspects] chose not to fight the case is that the suspects are the family breadwinners.
As for him, there are people who are willing to occasionally come to take care of him and visit him. I don’t go visit him every day, only once a week, but there are people helping out, so it’s not too much of a burden. If it’s like in China where prisoners are reportedly tortured and barred from having visitors, I might have decided otherwise. In prison, he was given the job of managing a library, so at least he can read or write.
Many people are wondering why he is very stubborn.
Actually, I knew that he was like this since we were married from the stories of his life that he told me. He did not just become stubborn like this of course, but since he was a student he was confident about his beliefs and ideas, so I shall not try to change him. I shouldn’t use the privilege as his wife or a family member to beg him if he has already made up his mind about this, what is best for him.
At the beginning, you and your family remained silent about this until other families and relatives of Article 112 [lèse majesté law] defendants came together as some sort of a network. What happened at that time? Were you afraid of repercussions?
I’m not engaging in political movements. I have my own career, which is not related to this at all and I didn’t feel comfortable to talk or express my opinions on the matter much at that time. I was just taking care of him, but did not want any public attention.
After that, it was natural because during the time when I went to visit him there were about 12-13 political prisoners and each of them would be regularly visited by their families and relatives, so we got know each other and talked and then formed some sort of a group. At first, it was only meant to help each other and talk to one another. We didn’t do much with it, but then we saw some issues that we can work on, such as campaigning to let the public know that there are problems about the use of this law [lèse majesté law] and about the impacts on families and relatives [of lèse majesté suspects].
What progress is there on the case now?
Last year, on 19 September, the Appeal Court handed down the verdict without informing me or his lawyer. He had to go to listen to the verdict alone. The Court of Appeal confirmed the ruling of the Criminal Court and we talked to each other that since we have come this far, we will go on until the end. His lawyer, Wasan Panich, will review and collect the arguments for the Supreme Court.
Do you still have hope that he will win the case?
With the current political situation, we have to analyse this carefully because in Thailand the justice system does not stand on its own, but it is greatly influenced by the political situation. If it was independent and free from all influences, I think the verdict would be different and we might possibly win the case. However, under the current political environment where we don’t have an elected government or democracy, but a military government which rules under martial law, he is likely to be prosecuted like before. Hopefully, his sentence might be reduced.
If you ask me what’s our highest hope in this struggle, I hope that the court will rule that he is not guilty and dismiss the case. This is what we wanted. To make it clear that this kind of case does not constitute a crime and that people who do something like this should not be prosecuted. Moreover, Somyos didn’t do anything wrong, but of course I have to think of the political situation as well.
If you ask what would happen if the Supreme Court still upholds the previous ruling, I think the result would simply be that he would be convicted at the final level. After that, perhaps he would be promoted from being one of the normal prisoners to a first-class prisoner and get the chance to be released a bit earlier.
The prison term of 11 years is one-sixth of his life, what does he plan to do in prison?
He reads primarily, I think. He writes a diary which is with him to contemplate about the past. He has the chance to talk to other prisoners from various backgrounds. There are some foreign prisoners as well, so he gets to practice his English through conversations and learn about the lives of others. The good thing about him is that he likes to help others. He helps others prisoners to overcome difficulties. He didn’t tell me this, but other prisoners who got out told me and thanked me later for the spiritual help they received from my husband for having him to help them out while they first got imprisoned.
He has his duties. We never know what will come into our lives, but when something occurs then we have to make the best of it. If we think that we can’t do anything and the time that we have to spend is wasted, then it would end up wasted.
He has changed quite a lot from doing all his activities freely outside to being locked up in prison, spending time to contemplate things. He is calmer, but he is still strong. In fact, perhaps even stronger. At least, he has overcome his fear. At first, just after he was sentenced to prison, he had to fight psychologically with himself a lot, but now he has already overcome that. Looking into his eyes, I don’t see the fear in his eyes. If you have experienced crises in life and overcome them, it wouldn’t be like that, so I think he is successful in this to a certain extent. Sometimes, imprisonment gives you something.
Do you think that Thai society will get something from Somyos’ case and other similar cases which continue to Supreme Court level? Is there hope that Thai society would change?
I can’t really answer this on behalf of all the others. However, from the feedback, many others see our struggle as a role model of some sort. No matter what the results will be, win or lose, they see that we have chosen to fight. They believe and think that if we can fight then they can too, regardless of all the difficulties in life.
I don’t expect his case to transform society, bring about democracy, or prevent another coup d’état, but at least people who are informed about our story might be encouraged. Sometimes, people encourage each other by their actions, which inspire others to continue to fight. Our actions might inspire others to fight on as well.
What time was most painful and uncomfortable for you?
The first years when I was following him while he was under custody because he had to stand trial in different provinces. It was painful for me to see him being put in chains or prison clothes and have to walk without shoes unlike normal persons. It felt terrible. The worst days were when I submitted bail requests for him. I submitted 16 bail requests until I had no hope left at the end. At the beginning, while we were fighting the case and preparing all the information, using claims under Article 19 (Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to point out that he is not guilty, we were spirited. However, they still refused to grant him bail and he had to be taken back and forth from the courts to prison. It really felt horrible because I felt that I had failed to fight for him and I had to see him being sent back to prison without coming home with me, but I tried my best to get better and take care of myself because I have to continue to fight for him from outside.