(Somyot Prueksakasemsuk is a labour and pro-democracy activist in Thailand who was imprisoned for seven years by the dictatorship in his country. He spoke to Sue Bolton of Socialist Alliance (Australia) and Kavita Krishnan from Liberation, and told his inspiring story.)
IN Thailand in 2006 there was a military coup. I was very active organising workers against the coup. Until 2011 we were under a civilian government. In 2010 we had the Red Shirt movement demanding dissolving of Parliament to hold elections, but the military severely cracked down, killing 80 civilians in firing and injuring thousands. At that time we established a group called Pro Democracy Movement and demanded that the Government take responsibility for the killings. The Government declared Emergency and I was arrested, I stayed in military camp for one month, they wanted me to be a witness against the civilian government in exile. I refused. The Government released me but the police told me that if I refused to denounce someone else, they would implicate me in a case instead.
I continued my work with a magazine, Voice of Thaksin, which was considered a magazine against the monarchy, because it carried writings by people criticising the monarchy obliquely! Under the lèse majesté law in Thailand, (Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code) anyone who is said to “defame” or “insult” the monarchy can be imprisoned for 3-15 years.
Some politicians were arrested under the lèse majesté law, and we launched a signature campaign aiming to reach 1 million people, demanding abolition of this draconian law. Within seven days they arrested me, saying that two articles in my magazine that I edited, insulted the King by implication. Being detained in prison, with one’s freedom and dignity lost, you feel like an animal. Three months into my prison sentence, I attempted suicide in prison one night. But a prisoner woke up and rescued me. I was sent to the hospital for treatment. At that time people and organisations organised campaigns - in Thailand and internationally also, and continued to do so for seven years. When my family showed me photos of those protests - including one small protest of about ten persons at the Thai Embassy at Malaysia - I felt strength and hope and stopped wanting to commit suicide. No one should ever feel their acts of international solidarity are futile - in my case, such solidarity saved my life. The first Court sentenced me to prison for 11 years. It was thanks to the sustained international campaign that the Supreme Court eventually commuted my sentence and I was released after 7 years.
I was told by the Government that my sentence could be commuted by the King if I were to plead guilty and beg pardon. There were 12 political prisoners arrested under the lèse majesté law in the same year that I was arrested. They negotiated and accepted the deal, begged pardon and had their sentence commuted. I was the only one who refused and insisted I wanted to prove my innocence and assert my freedom of speech and would not exchange injustice for freedom. Accepting the King’s ‘pardon’ would only confirm the King’s power. Also if I was released I could enjoy freedom but only at the cost of detaining myself in my heart, and I didn’t want to do that. I’m not guilty, I only exercised my rights.
The international campaign for my release was impressive. My friends - Union workers - in South Korea for instance, stood for two hours everyday holding placards outside the Thai Embassy, for two weeks! Many individuals sent me postcards encouraging me to fight. Meanwhile a second Court also upheld the 11 year sentence. I had been in jail for five years now, and we assumed there was no point now in appealing to the Supreme Court since two Courts had already upheld the 11 year sentence. My family and others all over the world continued to campaign. In the sixth year the Supreme Court reviewed the decision and said I must be released in the seventh year, reducing the sentence from 11 to 7 years. So I was released on May Day 2018 - a lucky May Day for me!
Clean Clothes Campaign in Amsterdam and Amnesty International, International Federation of Human Rights, AWL in Australia were among the organisations that supported me and campaigned internationally.
What is my life like after my release? Well, thanks to my prison sentence, I lost my job, my family. When I was arrested, the military police arrested my wife, my two children. My wife eventually remarried. My daughter left Thailand. My son lives in Bangkok but lives in a separate home from me. I lost my job also. I have to learn new things now - such as how to use a computer!
The pro-democracy organisations (a platform called the 24 June Democracy Group, established after the coup in 2006) that were supporting me collected and donated a lot of money to me - so that I have enough to sustain me for a year. This Group is now campaigning for elections which are due in February 2019.
I have published a book of poems that I wrote in prison. While in prison I was not allowed to read or write, and they would only allow family members to visit me. So I would write poems in my head, commit them to memory, and dictate them to my family when they would visit, for them to note down. For five years this is how I expressed myself in my poetry.
You asked if I got much support from other prisoners. In prison, political prisoners and other prisoners are all housed together. So there was a group of gangsters in the prison. The biggest gangster in the prison has an area all to himself, with exercise equipment. So I went there to exercise. The leader of the group came over to object, and asked me ‘Who are you, what case are you convicted for?’ And when I told him, he said, “Insulting the King? You are my hero. My case is only murder! But you dare to fight the King! And I became the hero of the prisoners, who said ‘No one brave enough to say something critical of the King’! If there was ever a quarrel among the various groups in the prison, I became the leader who could intervene and mediate and achieve peace!
We also fought for prisoners’ rights in prison - for instance, I used to have shackles and chains around my leg. Thanks to my struggle, they gave up using the chains around the legs.
After my release, my doorbell rang late one night. I went down to find a man at my door. He said he had broken into my home to burgle it, but seeing my photos, recognised me as the “hero” from the prison - so instead of burgling my house, he rang the bell, and we met and chatted before he left!
Before my release, the military police warned me that I should keep quiet and avoid speaking about the draconian law or the monarchy and dictatorship and my prison experience. But as soon as I was released, I addressed the press immediately, right outside the prison gates! So there military police visited me at home and advised me again, that I should stop all this if I value my freedom. But I said, prison now feels like home, I am glad to go back but I won’t stop my political activism!