“The Bangkok Tragedy” refers to the government-backed massacre of members of the red shirt movement, when a military crackdown on protesters from May 10 to May 19, 2010, resulted in at least 94 deaths.
Freed anti-junta activists from the Dao Din group talk to Prachatai about their experience in jail and how they learned about the value of freedom.
GUEST CONTRIBUTION by Panida Dumri and Nattamon Krajangdararat
First published on Prachatai English
On Wednesday 8 July, the 14 anti-junta activists from the New Democracy Movement (NDM) were released after being detained for 12 days as a result of their peaceful anti-junta protests. The charges against them still stand.
Prachatai talked to seven student activists from Khon Kaen University about their life in prison and what they learned behind bars. They had all had their heads shaved in protest at being separated inside prison, but their determined gaze was still unwavering.
During our talk, the activists who were waiting to be interviewed wandered off to play soccer. It was probably their first match together after being released.
“Noi” – Apiwat Suntararak
When I first walked in and saw the high walls, I was worried that what I had heard about prison was true, that it was just gonna be full of criminals and gangsters. We arrived at 2 am after we were arrested, and the wardens took good care of us from the first day.
When I woke in the morning, though, I was shocked at how everyone showered together, and I was too shy so I didn’t shower at first. The bathroom is really low, you have to sit down and stick your head out. There’s a guard watching the whole time, so I felt really pressured. There’s also a lot of people lining up for the bathroom so you have to do your business real fast.
After a while we were separated into different zones of the prison. I was put into zone 3 with Pai and Triangle [Base’s nickname]. They still took good care of us. The warden was vigilant but nice. He let us stay in a room with 11 people. The lights were always on, even at night, and it hurt my eyes and I kept waking up. It was also hot and crowded.
I also started to see what friendship between inmates was like. Wherever I walked, people would greet me and ask how I was. They found sleeping arrangements for each other. On the first night I was there, I saw that when an inmate had no place to sleep, another would share his cot.
Some inmates don’t have any relatives, so their life is really hard. They have to work really hard to trade for food and other stuff. For example, they might do someone’s laundry for a week in order to get a single cigarette.
Inmates also make a lot of stuff in there, everything from birdcages to paper bags. They’re really beautiful and well-made, actually. We share the work. The sweets made in there are also really good. Zone 3 sweets, I guess, only available to a select few. They’re sticky, chewy, wrapped in paper, and very delicious.
Did you get to meet other political prisoners?
No, I don’t think so. Mostly I met those in robbery or murder cases. I don’t think they’re evil people; they’re just regular people who made bad decisions at the moment, which ruined their lives. One of the inmates I talked with regularly told me his story. He went out to help a younger friend in a bad situation, and accidentally killed someone. He had just finished university and didn’t know what he wanted to be yet. There’s no one who is completely evil; society just needs to give them a chance. Most of the released inmates are rejected by society and they can’t find a job, so they go back to doing what they did before, and end up in here again. It’s a vicious cycle.
There’s this other guy who’s tattooed all over. It doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. He’s actually really goofy.
After the court said we would be released, all the other inmates were like, “You guys are going already? It’ll be lonely here without you.”
How did you feel when you came out to see your friends waiting for you outside the prison?
I wanted to cry, I was so happy. They’ve been fighting for and encouraging us from the outside the entire time. Fighting from the outside might be even worse than being in jail. They helped us with whatever they could, whenever they could. They brought so many gifts for us too. When I got to see their faces my heart was so full.
Anything else you want to say?
We’re confident we did, and are doing, the right thing. There might be both people who support us and people who don’t, but we still believe that our society should be free and our five values should be re-established in society.
“Arty” (Chusri) – Supachai Pukrongploy
I was moved to Zone 5 with Rome and Nui. That made me feel really lonely. When all of us were together it was a fun team atmosphere, so I felt devastated when we were separated. I lived for the 20 minutes a day when I got to see the others and our visiting relatives. Twenty minutes a day to sustain me.
I was put in the area towards the front of the Zone. The prisoners from different Zones would eat together. I think Zone 3 operates like a socialist state, with the wardens doing whatever job they are most fit to do. Wardens get social welfare benefits, food, shower facilities, and equal pay. Of course, there’s a lot of marginalized prisoners who don’t have anyone to visit them.
As a law student, what do you think of political prisoners in jail?
It’s a normal thing in our polarized society. Of course they’d get jailed. Their freedoms are restricted. They’re not criminals in the sense that they did something violent like killing, raping, or stuff like that. They’re prisoners of conscience. If they’re gonna continue having this law, they should have a separate prison for political prisoners. In there, they’re treated the same as the rest of the other inmates in a way that’s way too violent for people who just think differently.
How did you feel when your friends came to pick you up from prison?
Only then did I really appreciate the value of freedom, after being in there for 12 days. I felt freedom as a tangible thing.
I profoundly understand what liberty means after I was there for 12 days. The experience of life without freedom is very concrete. My mom came to wait for me. I’m touched. I was surprised that there were so many media. I believe we were released because I have fought for grassroot activists who are oppressed in the villages. There’s a clear picture of what we’ve done. Today we’re oppressed; we really felt it during the past 12 days. My feeling is even stronger when we’re separated. We really feel it now that we’re freed.
I’ll keep reminding myself of this: no matter how much my freedoms have been suppressed in these last 12 days, I learned that my ideals could be transformed into tangible things. And the ideals that I stand firm in can’t be stopped by fear.
I’ll keep on fighting. It’s a beautiful thing, is freedom.
“Pai” – Chaturapat Boonyapatraksa
How do you feel now that you’re released?
It was wrong for me to be punished in the first place. It’s an issue of expressing differing opinions. Society is full of different people; it’s impossible to force everyone to think identically. If there are people who think differently from you or from the state, they shouldn’t be punished for that. They wouldn’t become political prisoners, but prisoners of conscience.
It’s really important that people be more open-minded, listen to reason, and look at the facts before making up their minds. People are capable of seeing what’s just and what’s not, what’s true and what’s not. Different kinds of thought must be allowed to circulate in society, and then after that they can make up their minds however they want.
Jail is for people who broke the law, not for prisoners of conscience. The only tool a tyrant has against them is to physically bar them from communicating with society.
Did you exchange any ideas from the other inmates?
Yeah, but I can’t say it to the press. They have valuable ideas which society should hear. But since these prisoners are locked away, their ideas are too.
What were living conditions like after you moved from Zone 1 to Zone 3?
At first we were in Zone 1. I tried to adjust myself but I really couldn’t. It was the lack of freedom, realized in a physical form.
I’d say that being inside and outside the jail are no different. They really are not different. Having us in jail helps to prove my point.
Now that I’ve experienced both sides, I say that even more. On both sides of the bars, we have to stay inside a square box.
They took really good care of us since the wardens were informed that we were special prisoners. They fenced us off from the rest of the Zone and let us shower after other inmates.
We assume that inmates are the scum of the earth, the bottom of the barrel. But inside, it doesn’t matter who you were before, everyone’s equal. Underneath the tattoos and uncouth manners they still have the beauty of their humanity. Each human will always retain that beauty, but society often taints it.
All the inmates have their beautiful humanity, and I could see it. They were kind to us, took care of us.
You guys were put in the front part of the Zone instead of the back, could that be part of why the jail society wasn’t so bad?
When I went for a smoke, other inmates would come up and talk to me, asking me what I was arrested for. We would exchange our cases. They’re even more knowledgeable than judges regarding legal cases. They can tell the sentence just from hearing a case of an alleged crime.
They’ve got first-hand experience, that’s why. As a law student, I think that judges should come and experience life in the jails, so they know what happens after the sentence is doled out, what the prisoner’s life will be like. The Thai judiciary system is focused on punishment, and some people shouldn’t be in jail at all while others carry sentences that are way too harsh.
I was glad to be with the other 13 in Zone 1. It raised our morale, and we exchanged jokes and laughs. We also held meetings to monitor our situation. Then they separated us, it was to weaken our resolve and perhaps force us to beg for bail. They didn’t succeed, however.
We were in separate zones but our hearts were connected. Come what may! We don’t need bail. That’s what held us together, even as we were far apart.
Any other comments?
Jail isn’t a scary place, just a boring one. Don’t be afraid of it. I want everyone to experience it just once. Being in jail is just a prerequisite for fighting righteously against the NCPO. If we fight, then we get jailed.
But jail isn’t scary at all.
The real scary thing is if we let the dictatorship—as well as the cultural strains that permit it to stay—to continue its tyranny in Thai society.
“Tong” – Wasan Satthasit
What was prison life like?
When we were all together in Zone 1, I wasn’t lonely at all. We would update each other on our relatives’ visits and analyze our situation together. The wardens took good care of us. There was always someone trailing or guarding us when we went to the bathroom, to smoke, to eat, or to shower. It was like they didn’t want other prisoners to interact with us.
At that time, we weren’t bored, even though there were no books to read. After we were separated into different zones, we weren’t completely lonely since there were still visiting hours for our relatives and lawyers. After we were moved, they continued to take good care of us, in a way that I would even say was careful. It was like we were special prisoners. I would say that our status as university students also helped to protect us. Our youth too, even if I don’t look it.
After we were separated into different zones I had to get to know whoever got to go with me. I was with Dave. I didn’t know him before this, so we got to know each other’s behaviour and personality.
A part of me secretly wanted us to stay longer, since I was adjusting to the situation inside the jail, including the food and living conditions. I also prepared myself to stay there for at least 48 days. But of course, I’m really happy to be out of there too.
The second you stepped out of jail, how did you feel?
I might be exaggerating, but I felt like I could smell freedom. Outside, I’m able to do whatever I want but inside I have to follow prison rules. The rules really regulated my body, and what I could do. I tried to think of the 12 days as a camp, monk ordination, or conscription. I didn’t want to stress myself out. While we were all together in Zone 1 there were a lot of ways to relax. We would tell jokes and funny stories from our own lives, and whoever told a lame joke would have to knock on the floor three times.
Did you meet any political prisoners in jail?
A lot, actually. Most of them are inclined toward the red side. They’d come up and greet me. They follow current events, since usually there are newspapers available in the prison. But when I went into the prison, they took away the newspapers, and the TV channels were changed from news to soap operas. They tried to do all this because they didn’t want us to talk to the political prisoners very much. They were probably afraid we were gonna cause some kind of protest in there.
For example, we all agreed to shave our heads if they separated us. When we did, other inmates who agreed with us, mostly political prisoners, shaved their heads to show support as well. The warden got in hot water with his supervisor since it was against prison protocol. But we weren’t trying to protest against the prison, we just wanted to communicate with the outside.
What do you think about the incarcerated political prisoners?
I believe no one should be jailed for expressing their opinions. There’s this inmate who’s been in there for 11 months although he has not been charged yet. The police just keep holding him. Each time he goes out to court, the case hasn’t been filed. They always say they haven’t finished drafting the case file. It’s been almost a year already.
He’s been there for almost a year although he’s done no wrong. It’s way too unjust towards him.
Regarding the behaviour of the wardens towards inmates, even if the inmates are wrong, even if they’re a danger to society, they’re still people. They shouldn’t be screamed at, beat up, or verbally abused.
This extends to the medical staff as well. No matter what inmates are suffering, they all receive the same set of pills: antibiotics, cold medicine, and paracetamol. The nurses act just like the wardens, often oppressively towards the inmates. I understand that they have to be tough to keep inmates in line, but sometimes they go too far, treating them as if they aren’t human.
Before you got arrested, you said you’d hold up one of your cloth protest signs in prison if anyone asks what you did to get jailed. When you got arrested for real, did anyone ask you about the charges against you?
The other inmates knew it was a political case, so they asked me if I had held protests. I had imagined before going in that it was probably going to be a funny situation, but when I went in for real it really wasn’t. It wasn’t funny at all.
The wardens also tried to make it hard for us to interact with other prisoners, so I didn’t get to talk to them or exchange views with them very much. From what I could tell, though, the inmates who took care of us wanted us to get out on bail because to them we didn’t seem like thieves or dangerous people.
Anything to say to the public?
In the future don’t be sorry if you didn’t rise up to fight with us today. We don’t know how long we can survive in this sort of atmosphere, so you have to do something, no matter who.
“Base” – Suvicha Tipangkorn
How did you fare in prison?
When we were all together in Zone 1 we got to know each other better. Some of us hadn’t met before and only got to know each other in prison. It was fun and rowdy, and we adjusted ourselves to the prison bathrooms. When I was moved to Zone 3 I was so sad, I cried. They separated me from my friends so unexpectedly.
I had to readjust myself in Zone 3, and learn new things. They took good care of me and let me stay towards the front of the Zone. I went into the bedroom at 3 pm each day to sleep, meditate, watch TV, and watch the news. There was at least some news to watch. I had to wake at 6 am each day to shower and use the bathroom before coming back to the cell, hoping that my relatives would come visit me that da. After a 20-minute visit, I would eat, shower, and enter the cell again. This cycle would just keep repeating. The bedroom was clean, and I slept with 11 other people, all elderly men. We were so crowded our feet touched when we slept. They let me sleep there because there was a camera in that room.
Did you get to talk much with the other prisoners?
I got to know guy who got hit with the Criminal Court bombing case. He’s also an Isaan person, like me. We talked about how only Isaan people were getting arrested, and we spoke in Isaan too.
I want to say that it’s not scary in prison like you think. If you know how to survive and don’t pick fights with others, then it isn’t that bad. Even after being there for just a few days I exchanged addresses with some other inmates. I told him that he could come hang out at Dao Din meeting house (บ้านดาวดิน) since he was getting out next year. He said he didn’t have any relatives since his father and younger sibling was dead, and his mom had a new husband. He didn’t have a place to live either, so I said he could come to us.
Do you have anything to say to the public?
I have something to say to people with strong prejudices against prison inmates. They might be heavily tattooed but that doesn’t mean they’re just gonna harm people easily. They have their own reasons for getting in prison. In prison, everyone’s equal: it doesn’t matter what age you are, you can all be friends. There is no ranking or hierarchy in there. It doesn’t matter if you were some big hot-shot godfather on the outside, but inside, everyone’s just another inmate using the same bathrooms and eating the same food.
What was prison like for you?
Before going in I thought it was gonna be a horrible place full of gangs and hazing. When I arrived there around 2 am the atmosphere was much different than what I initially thought. We slept, then when we woke up there were these wardens guarding us. The supervisor told them to take special care of us and barred us from talking to the other prisoners.
After we were separated into different Zones we agreed that we had to try and meet each other more, so we told our relatives to visit us during the same 9 am visiting rounds. That way, we would get to meet and discuss. The difference between Zone 1 and 2 is, Zone 1 mixes both inmates waiting for a verdict in their cases as well as those who have already been sentenced, so there are inmates of all ages in there. In Zone 2, there are only young people from 19 years old to no older than 25. So since young men aren’t as responsible in some areas, Zone 2 is really dirty. (laughs)
Before going into Zone 2, a Zone 1 senior inmate told me to watch out or tum moy. What is tum moy?, I thought. I knew soon after going into Zone 2. It’s similar to chickenpox or German measles, and it’s really scary. People infected with it are in trouble. Their limbs are swollen and their blisters ooze pus.
People in Zone 2 are divided into cliques quite systematically. Gangsters and bullies bring their group members to fights, and the Zone is divided into gang territory. Friends will stick to their groups. The Zone is also divided by sexual orientation. Ladyboys run the Yaowarat [Chinatown] zone.
How did you feel when you got out of prison and saw your friends?
I felt like I got to see them a lot in prison, but this time it was different because we were free. We could walk anywhere we wanted without high walls fencing us in, and I could feel that we were free. When meeting other groups of friends I was also happy, since I got to talk to them and hold their hands.
I felt like we were being watched extra closely in the prison. I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but I think the wardens of each Zone forbad the other inmates from talking to us. Once another inmate was curious so he came up and was like, ‘Hey kid, what’re you in here for?’ so the warden came up to us, asked us what we were talking about, and ordered the other inmate to do squats. After that no one really talked to me, except in the bedroom cell.
I’m glad I’m out of prison because there’s no freedom. Each day I have to come and sit in front of the Zone for the wardens to guard me all day. I’m glad I got to come out and talk about what’s really bad about prison and the living conditions, so that people interested in this can know about it. I hope people will understand that prisoners aren’t as bad as they think. Some of them forged really strong bonds with us. They’re just like other people in society. I don’t think all of them did evil things to end up in prison, more like society pressured them to do those things. After they get out, a lot of times society won’t accept them. If anyone’s interested I would be glad to talk more about this. I’m thankful that I got to come out of prison with knowledge to spread.
“Nice” – Panupong Srithananuwat
What were your living conditions in prison like?
At first I felt really anxious since I had assumed that it would be scary, like the media had told me. When entered the reception zone, everything was done so rigorously, done according to prison protocol. The warden was in charge of keeping order in the Zones. There was a cell leader who took care of the rules in the cell. At first when we were all together in Zone 1 there wasn’t much to do since there were no books to read, so we just sat around. After we were separated into different Zones, the wardens kept an eye on our safety. In the prison’s eyes, we were not criminals who robbed or killed, but we were prisoners of conscience.When we were all together in Zone 1, it wasn’t all happy-go-lucky but at least we weren’t lonely. We were totally unprepared for the separation, so I admit to feeling lonely after that.Life in Zone 2 wasn’t so different, and there were books to read too. Zone 2 is divided into territorial areas, called baan (houses). For example, inmates who come from around the Ramkhamhaeng area will be in Baan Ram. Other baan include Baan Malaysia, Baan Singapore, Baan Islam, Baan Lad Phrao. There’s an entire system of governance, and jobs assigned to the members of each baan. The leader of each baan, por [father] baan, takes care of the members. The members’ jobs include finding goods, saving seats, reserving the laundry area, and hanging up the laundry. They have a system in place and members each have their jobs.Did you meet any other political prisoners?
Quite a few, actually, 4-5 people. We talked about current events. They asked me why I came out to protest against the NCPO. I explained the same way I had explained to the media. We used to work in Khon Kaen, working with farmers and miners on the issue of resources, and how state projects infringe on them. Protesting against the junta is the same issue.
We also exchanged whatever we knew. They also have their own set of knowledge. For example, I’d talk about upcountry resources and how the state was imposing on them, while they’d tell me about the political system.
I think of my incarceration as a life experience. Some people haven’t even been proven guilty yet and they’re being held in detention there for 7 months. I don’t understand how the justice system can let this happen. They need to finish the case already so at least the inmates know what’s going to happen, and can set about planning for their lives. If you don’t convict them and leave them in limbo, you shouldn’t have the right to imprison them for long periods of time like this.
I don’t want society outside to immediately brand inmates as scary jailbirds. If you open your heart a little and just talk to them, they’ll do the same to you. They have their own reasons for getting in there, such as coming from an impoverished home and getting no education. Without even a chance at education, their options of finding a living are very few. So to support their wives and kids they might turn to selling drugs.
I hope society can see them as people too. They’re much better than us in terms of having mastered the art of survival. They’re much scrappier and have struggled more. We have money and education, and our parents paid for our tuition. The inmates have nothing, so there is no choice but to struggle.