Note : The article below was first filed and published late December 2014.
Lee Yu Kyung in Sumut Prakan and Bangkok, Thailand
Samut Prakan is at the verge of Bangkok’s south east. Factories and workers as well as crocodile farm and golf course are featured in the province. There, I traveled to Wat (“temple”) Bang Hua Suan where I met 55 year old woman Aree Chaimongkul in late November in 2014. She hurriedly showed me three pictures of her son, who was not any more.
“My son was healthy. But he was very scared of being in prison. He said he didn’t want to be transferred to ‘Unit 4’”
The man in the pictures bore several bruises marks which looked bit dug.
“I heard bruises were probably resulted from electrocution.” A lawyer told me quoting an unnamed doctor.
“But it’s not sure whether the torture was decisive factor of death” he added.
Surakrit Chaimongkol, Aree’s 36 year old son, was died inside the Bangkok’s Remand Prison on August 28. Director of the Corrections Department Wittaya Suriyawong reportedly said Mr. Surakrit had sudden asthma attack in the morning. Prison doctor Sorasith Chongcharoen mentioned of diabetes. However, there was different observation by Dr. Salaktam Tojirakarn, who participated in Surakrit’s autopsy. He talked of ‘massive internal bleeding in the stomach’ might have caused Surakrit’s death. Although prison authority claimed that inmates never were subjected to torture or beating, Aree has suspected that her son died of physical attack. She had insisted not to cremate her son’s body until truth would be revealed. However, cremation eventually took place on November 30 without truth revealed yet.
Suspicions on prison death
Surakrit, taxi driver, was a Red Shirts supporter who advocates an electoral democracy. He was accused of gunning down Suthin Tharatin, anti-election activist, on January 26 2014 – a week before the election that the then Yingluck administration was hopeful to win. The advance vote was being processed on that day amid turmoil created by opponents in several locations including Bang Na district of Bangkok – next door to Samut Prakan. While Suthin’s mob staged in the district, unknown assailant shot him. Suthin died on the spot. Surakrit , who was arrested in July 8 as a suspect, denied all charges.
Aree visited her son on August 21, 7 days before Surakrit died. Surakrit was then prisoned in ‘Unit 1’ of Remand Prison. ‘Unit 1’ is for those who first arrived at prison and largely are not yet convicted. Aree said her son was depressed as he was told to be transferred to ‘Unit 4’, which is manned by long term prisoners including mafia-like figures.
“He asked me to hurry to bail him out. Otherwise he would be killed in the prison”
Bail was denied and Aree got a call in the morning of August 28 that her son died in ‘Unit 4’. It’s not clear whether he died of probable torture while interrogation, beaten up by inmates or disease.
There’s a growing concern over ‘political prisoners’ like Surakrit when they are mixed up with others inmates, given deeply plagued political conflict in the country. Thai Lawyer’s for Human Rights (TLHR), which was established on May 24 two days after the coup, has asked director of Bangkok Remand Prison on October 30 that political prisoners who have not been convicted yet should be separated from other convictees.
Nevertheless, the Junta has started to dismantle Laksi prison or “Prison for Political Prisoners” since mid-July, sending inmates to different jails. Laksi Prisoners were exclusively Red Shirts, who have been in jail since bloody crackdown in 2010. In January 2012, Yingluck government, the elected one thanks to Red Shirts’ supports previous year, has institutionalized recommendations made by National Reconciliation Commission. One of them was not to mix up political prisoners with other inmates. The Junta however has turned over everything of this by issuing order no.402 on November 4th to close Laksi Prison.
“It costs a million baht to run Laksi prison in separate” said Justice minister Gen. Paibun Kumchaya.
Climate of ‘more’ fear for political prisoners
“I haven’t got any torture. It’s probably because I’m the editor of legally published magazine. But what I heard is that those who have been accused of possession of arms or involved in political violence, they might have been exposed to physical torture”
Thanapol Easakyul, the 41 year-old editor of Same Sky Journal, said. Thanapol had been twice detained by the Junta. First one came when he protested against the Coup on May 23, a day after the Coup.
“When the army asked me to sign MOU for a condition of release, I did it without reading as there are many things I should do outside”
But the release accompanied with a warning in a shudder.
“They said they released me this time without harsh measure, but warned that they would ‘use violence’ if I again criticize the coup or post anything (on Facebook) deemed to be offence of lese majeste”
Thanapol hardly stopped his vocal voice, which had brought him to second detention. On July 5th a middle-ranked soldier ‘invited’ him for a coffee. As they met, the soldier handed him over to 2nd Cavalry Division in SanamPao district in Bangkok. The Army said they are not happy with his posting on Facebook.
“It was different from the first detention, during which I was treated well along with other detainees such as politicians and journalists. But in second detention, I was watched 24 hours in CCTV installed-small room. I couldn’t use my mobile unlike previous time. I started to feel pressured” he said.
After 5 days, Thanapol signed MOU again to be released. That hasn’t gagged him who still raised his critical voice. Late October, when Bangkok’s Book Fair held, he installed a booth to exhibit and sell books and his highly critical magazine. What was more? There’re T-shirts, which the authority warned not to sell because design of them deemed to be a violation of lese majeste.
Detained for posting on Facebook
As 7 months has gone by after the Coup, apparent clam on the street of Bangkok prevails. The anti-coup camp has been completely silenced, but dissent voices and gossiping of royal family on SNS is in full swing which would wreck the nerves of the old establishment including the military. According to recent report by Freedom House in the US, Thailand internet is less free than Myanmar. The Junta does not recognized opponents nor doesn’t existence of political prisoners. Martial law, which authorizes 7 days detention without charge, is still alive. The case of Surakrit and the one of Thanopol are partial reflection of deteriorating situation in Thailand.
According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rrights(TLHR), the Junta has summoned 571 for the first 100 days since the Coup. Of them, 80 are detained unknown place and denied to have visitors. As of mid-September, some 14 detainees claimed to have got tortured. The statistic afterwards has not been yet materialized.
It was Kritsuda Kunasen, a Red Shirts activist, who has first claimed about torture during the army’s detention. Since her arrest, no word was heard of her whereabouts for 29 days causing fear of ‘enforced disappearance’. When she appeared together with her boyfriend on TV surrounded by soldiers in June, she astonished public by saying she was happy in detention and wanted to be detained longer. Yet the ‘happiness remarks’ were reversed in August, when she reappeared on ‘Thai Voice Media’ which is run by an exiled Thai journalist. She, now in exile, has described her torture of being stripped, blindfolded and bathed by someone else – believe to be woman though. And she was suffocated with plastic bag, which is routine torture tool in Thailand. Mr. Sihasak Pusangketkeow, permanent Secretary of Minister of Foreign Affairs refuted her claim terming “misunderstanding”, “inadequate information” without details of counter explanation.
Prachatai, the independent media, has also carried out its exclusive story of torture for detainees. Among them was Chatchawan Prabamrung, the 45 year-old mechanic. He has claimed to be beaten by two masked men for 4 hours. Then he was taken to basement, where “an electric wire wrapped in absorbent cotton with tied to his genitals while another wire was inserted into his anus”. An officer once put a pistol into his mouth, he said. This made him force to ‘confess’.
Electrocute on anus
“It’s like the early days of Southern insurgency a decade ago. Back then, we had to demand the army to reveal where they detained suspects. Now we are asking the same in Bangkok and elsewhere, while the army in the South informs the family detainees’ location at least.” Pawinee Chumsri, the human rights lawyer who has been active in Southern issue said.
Bangkok is arguably worse than insurgency-hit south when it comes to ‘judicial justice’. In the South civilians are not tried at the military court, but in Bangkok such trials have been seen. This is not because of martial law, but because of the Junta’s order no.37, issued on May 25.
According to the order, those who gathered more than 5, those who defy the Junta’s summon, those who violated criminal code 116 which offense is linked to treason, and the criminal code 112 – the infamous lese majeste charge – are to be brought to the military court. As of mid-October, according to TLHR, 69 cases out of 102 political cases are on military court while 33 cases are in civilian court.
Nut Rungwong, editor of Thai E-News, was recently sentenced to 4 years and half at the Military Court after half reduced from the original sentence as he pleaded guilty. He was convicted of lese majeste for the article published 5 years ago. The Junta vowed it would transfer lese majeste cases pending on civilian court to the military court. It also announced on November 13 that lese majeste would be tried in a camera. iLaw – the justice NGO, which has monitored closely the lese majeste cases, has said 80% of the cases brought to the military court were tried in camera. iLaw also analyzed that sentence for lese majeste convictees after the coup got two times more than under the civilian government.
For a last blow, the article 36 and article 61 of Military Court Act has prohibited appeal court. The process of investigation and conviction is under total control of military officer and judge. Out of three judges at the military court, only one holds law background. High risk weighs on the 26 suspects of ‘Khon Kaen Model’ plot, whom the military court has been trying for 9 charges including ‘terrorism act’ that can be led to death sentence. Although 24 out of 26 defendants were released on bail as of December 22 on the ground of their poor health, charges and trial process are not affected.
“Our team of lawyers didn’t hear any torture claim from 26 defendants. But we absolutely denied terrorism charges. The defendants, mostly farmers and casual workers (in Khon Kaen province) aged between 40s and 70s, have no criminal records or such. It’s not true that defendants brought weapons of war to prepare armed rebellion. In fact we don’t know the origin of weapons that were displayed at a press conference.”
Winyat Chartmontri, the lawyer from Free Thai Legal Aid (FTLA) representing defendants, wrote in an email interview. Now, priority for the lawyers is to transfer this case from Military court to civilian court for fair trial.
No appeal at Military court
Oppression in Isaan – the country’s North East, to where Khon Kaen is belongs – seems more serious. It’s known that the Junta hardly issue any official document to summon people but arrested in secret or raid on the spot. The covert operation has not been excluded in Bangkok, nonetheless. Sirot (name changed), who’s been active on-line forum for years, was one of those who was called in unofficial. He fled the country out of fear.
“I received a call from unknown person who told me to report to the army camp in person. The tone was threatening” He said on the phone. Days later, Sirot received a mail containing death threat, warning to stop posting lese majeste relevant.
“By then, I felt truly threatened. I moved to parents’ place, where I kept staying low profile. I haven’t been out unless urgent. After a month, I flew here and applied political asylum”
Sirot, who has never participated Red Shirts rally, is now having regular meeting with Red Shirts activists who are in exile in the same country. He couldn’t stand by idle as the military has overthrown elected government multiple times. “That’s why I joined the campaign ‘Respect My Vote’ early this (2014) year” he said.
‘Respect My Vote’ campaign was ignited early January 2014 by Ake Ottagon (34), who shouted “Respect My Vote!” at a press conference by Democrats, the party being associated with conservatives having a history of election boycot. At the evening of November 23, Ake Ottagon has showed up near Democracy Monument in Bangkok. Handful of citizens had gathered to show their support for students, who were arrested days ago for ‘three finger salute’ at the cinema screening ‘Hunger Game’. Three fingers salute has become a symbol of resistance against authoritarian rule in Thailand. And now it’s banned.
“It is people who own this land. Those who wielding power will be judged by people and their power will be waning”
Ake said in an interview on the spot, where soldiers around were watching. Given the intimidating circumstance, he admitted he was afraid.
“Yes, I am. (Because) they may try to catch me”