19 April 2011

“I Will Not Shut My Mouth”

Lèse majesté, or crime against the monarchy, has been prohibited in Thailand for more than a century. Since 1932, when it was first introduced to the Thai constitution, lèse majesté violations have included any “insult” against the King, whether written or spoken. In 2009, Thai courts accepted 164 charges of lèse majesté, far more than any other country in the world. That year also saw what seemed to be disproportionately harsh sentencing against Red Shirt activists, who oppose the current Thai administration.

Red Shirts have been persecuted outside the legal system as well. In the April-May 2010 military crackdown, the Thai Royal Army killed 92 people, almost all of which were Red Shirt demonstrators on the streets of Bangkok. After the crackdown, public outcry forced the administration to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate the events surrounding the violence of April-May 2010.

In Unit 3, we traveled to Bangkok to speak with Dr. Khanit na Nakhon and Somchai Homla-or, two leaders of the TRC. We also spoke with human rights experts Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree and Kwanvaree Wangudom to learn about the ways students can get involved in fighting against human rights violations in Thailand and elsewhere. What we learned was that political activism starts with educating ourselves rather than educating those around us. We also learned that real progress is made when we can identify core problems and fight to remedy them. One of the core challenges facing Thailand is limited speech, which has taken the form of the Computer Crimes Act and lèse majesté laws.

Upon returning from the unit trip, I was able to interview Chiranuch Premchaiporn, a woman who may face 50 years in prison under a regime which is unwilling to accept criticism. As you can see from the profile below, Chiranuch taught me about hope and perseverance in the face of a seemingly impossible challenge

“I Will Not Shut My Mouth”
Chiranuch’s Fight for Open Dialogue

Two days.

That is how much notice Chiranuch Premchaiporn is given when she must make the long journey from Bangkok to Khon Kaen each month. The scramble to Isaan is a reality she faces while detained on bail, as she is required to travel at least six hours by bus to check-in at the provincial police station, located more than 470km from her home. After her March 25 hearing, she was notified that she would not have to return to Khon Kaen until police hand her case to the court. The handoff is still yet to be determined.

Her trips to Khon Kaen were precipitated by a local Khon Kaen business man that she had committed lèse majesté. “[Making me come to Khon Kaen] is obviously meant to harass and intimidate me. I think the person who filed the complaint did not expect me to enjoy Isaan. But I have some friends here who try to make sure I have some activities to do every time I travel to Khon Kaen so I don’t just go to the police station for five minutes and leave.”

Premchaiporn is one of 164 people charged last year under the lèse majesté law and the Computer Crimes Act. She was first arrested in March 2009 for not promptly removing comments that were allegedly insulting to the monarchy posted to the online forum she moderates at Prachatai news source.

Despite the sensitivity of her case, she has never closed her story off from the news media. “I don’t want to be involved with a conspiracy or some lobby behind the scenes. I want to do everything in public, and I want to be transparent,” she said.

Her desire to be transparent lies at the foundation of what she wants for Thailand: the freedom to have open discussion about the issues facing the country.

“In the past we were under the illusion that Thailand was at peace and people were friendly and open. But actually we are not open. Now people are beginning to understand that we live in a conservative society,” she said.

She began to champion open discussion and non-judgment long before her work at Prachatai. These ideas stemmed first from what she calls a “flexible upbringing” and were fostered in her work with ACCESS, an NGO aimed at providing support for people living with HIV/AIDS.“HIV/AIDS work is about being non-judgmental and about counseling. It helped me open my mind to something else, rather than sticking with what I had always believed.”

This attitude of non-judgment translates directly into her work with Pratchatai, where her main concern is to create an open space for all ideas and perspectives. “There are political conflicts. People have frustrations. They want to talk, and they want to discuss,” she explained.

But for now, open dialogue is not possible because people live in a climate of fear. And cases such as hers do little to encourage Thai people to express themselves freely.

“We used to think we lived in a country where we could say anything we want. But there really are limitations on the things we can talk about.”

That is why she now dedicates her energy to the new Article 1-1-2 Awareness Campaign, which seeks to disseminate knowledge about the lèse majesté law. The campaign, which launched March 27, also encourages debate about solutions for the issues posed by lèse majesté. The movement is encouraging to Premchaiporn, who finds strength in growing public interest surrounding the issue.

“I will not shut my mouth. I will keep talking to the press,” she explained. “This is not my problem. It’s a social problem.”

Despite the legal challenges she is soon to face in the Khon Kaen judicial system, she has remained remarkably optimistic.

“It’s not nice when I have to go to the police station, but I like Isaan. I really like Isaan people,” she said.

Dan Cohn
University of Rochester


huckabone said...

The Lese Majeste law is one of the things I find most unsettling about Thailand. When I first found out I would be going to Thailand the joke I got from most people was, be careful of what you say. We laughed about it, and made some very insensitive comments and everything was just fine. That is until I arrived in Thailand and realized that it’s not just a silly rule or law, it’s actually a way of life for Thai people. The connection between the King and the people is evident through images and phrases. What is not evident is the very corrupt way this law is used. The story you have conveyed in this post clearly illustrates how far Thailand still must go in the search for a transparent and effective government

Jennifer said...

Kristi, your right that this law shines light on the corruption that exists in Thai politics and law. I think this shines light on even deeper rooted problems not just in Thailand but globally. The defendant said that this is a "social problem," not just a political one. It shows how socially, Thai people are not truly free either. The fact that you cannot speak freely or write freely, therefore, means that you can not think freely. How do you build a democracy when those things cannot exist?

It's interesting how she talked about her desire to be transparent in her own work and spread transparency for the Thai government. While studying global systems of development and globalization here, one of the things we have discussed is the importance and need for institutions to be transparent. This calls for increased public participation and understanding of the decisions of institutions. I have questioned how this is feasible for large institutions. One of the things the defendant wants to do is create open space and dialogue. What does this mean and how can it be possible especially in a country like Thailand with strict restrictions. Although it is daunting, I think creating that transparency is what democracy should ideally be.


Jamestress said...

Nothing unsettles me more than the idea of someone being persecuted for their opinions. There's a quote I heard once in sixth grade, something along the lines of "They can imprison me, but they can't imprison my mind." Which is true...to an extent.

My thought is that the human body can only be dealt so much before it unwittingly complies to the forces that compel it to bend. Between the individual, the amount it takes before compliance differs. So seeing this woman stand boldly in the face of blatant and demanding intimidation tactics by a militant government is absolutely inspiring. What scares me, though, is what the retaliation on her rebellion will be. How far will the enforces of lese majeste go to ensure that she does not speak up again? Who among the "outspoken" people of Thailand gave up the fight, and succumbed to the will of Law already?

With the recent crackdowns on Academia, the fear is real, and here to stay for good, it seems. But with more people like (shoot, forgot her name!) the woman in your profile, then there's a chance that a scene from "V for Vendetta" could ensue - the more people who stand up and fight for their voice, the quieter the Thai government's voice becomes.

Anna said...

The acceptance of the hierarchical system has bothered me the most in Thailand. I have been frustrated with people avoiding my questions about their real thoughts on the royal family, even in private settings, as well as feeling scared feeling of talking about it in public. I have a feeling that many Thai people feel the same way, but are also very comfortable in their non confrontational ways, and have accepted many forms of hierarchy. I think this womens actions of speaking out against the lese majeste is setting an example for the rest of the country to confront injustices instead of pretending they didnt happen. I think the 1-1-2 awareness campaign is paving the road for Thai people to start openly saying how they really feel.

Meg! said...

I'm afraid to even say certain things on this blog for fear of the Computer Crimes Act...

It's such a shame that there is very clearly a climate of oppression that has reigned the country over the past several years.

From a microcastic angle, what do we do when we have problems with our buddy? We talk about it, communicate, criticize, etc.

Freedom of expression is probably the best thing to solve problems, and 112 disables it. I'm not an academic, I'm not familiar with the actual code of the law, but I do know that the escalating numbers reflect a hotter political situation.

Let's see what happens in the June elections! Woot!