Guest contribution by Hallie O’Neill

With notebook and pen in hand – two prized possessions he bribed off of a guard – Patiwat Saraiyaem wrote the poetry he’d later shape into music, but for now it’s urgent with frustration and despair.

On this day, he wasn’t scribbling in a coffee shop in a Khon Kaen side street. He was crouched on a cold prison floor.

“I didn’t do anything wrong … I am innocent!” Patiwat now says. “I was a victim of the coup.”

Months before, Patiwat had no idea he’d end up behind bars. He’s an artist to his core: when he’s not writing poetry, he’s singing, playing instruments, or putting on a mo lam performance. This is precisely what he did on October 14, 2013 – the 40th anniversary of the popular uprising in 1973, an event that temporarily ended the ruling military dictatorship and proved the political power of the student movement.

His friends asked him if he’d like to join them in a theatrical performance of the play, “The Wolf Bride,” to be performed at the public celebration at Thammasat University. The play satirizes the Thai monarchy and politics. In the performance, Patiwat played the role of the Brahmin advisor, a character who poisons the king.

Unable to turn down an opportunity to create, Patiwat said yes.

Ten months later, he was handcuffed and sent off to Bangkok Remand Prison for violating Article 112 of the Criminal Code, or Thailand’s lése-majesté law. Although he was first sentenced to five years, he reluctantly pleaded guilty in order to halve his time to two and a half years.

Bangkok Remand Prison holds prisoners serving less severe sentences, usually under 15 years. Political prisoners like Patiwat lived among robbers, rapists, and other criminals.

At first, he couldn’t understand how he fit into this population.

“When I was staying with criminals, I felt more like a criminal [myself],” Patiwat says. “I’ve seen and heard people who are prisoners talking, telling their stories: how to steal, how to lie, how to cheat people.”

At first, Patiwat concealed his identity as a political dissident and mo lam musician. He told other inmates he was convicted of robbery, just because he didn’t know how they’d react to his lése-majesté charge.

But in prison, he had upwards of six hours of free time every day. If he couldn’t find productive ways to spend the time, he knew he’d soon drive himself mad. He quickly turned to what he knows best – creative expression.

“The best way out for me was to write poetry,” Patiwat said. “I had to do this in hiding, but it reminded me that I’m still myself.”

He met other inmates who served certain prison guards as part of their daily duties, and through them, he was able to make secret requests for notebooks and pens – items the guards could acquire easily. When he hid to write his poetry, no one bothered him. He began to exchange stories with his fellow inmates, and eventually share his story openly.

He still keeps the four notebooks he filled during his prison sentence. They’re what kept him sane throughout his incarceration, and the messages inside are infused into the music he performs publicly today.

Patiwat has been an artist since he was young. Throughout his childhood in Isaan’s Sakon Nakhon Province, he listened to mo lam singers on the radio and thought they were “cool.” He chose to become one, leaving home to study folk music at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Fine Arts and perform in various cities across Thailand.

On stage, Patiwat (right) calls himself “bak nuat ngoen lan,” which roughly translates to ‘The Million-Baht Mustache Man.”

A traditionally Lao-Isaan genre, songs categorized as mo lam often reflect these influences. While the genre has embraced fusions with reggae, ska, pop rock and other popular genres, when not dwelling on the staple of romance the more traditional strains of mo lam dig deep into the political, historical lore of the Mekong region.

In recent years clubs in Bangkok began throwing mo lam parties and the genre moved from Isaan’s rural villages to the international world music scene. But despite this revival, Patiwat doesn’t make a lot of money, he says — just enough to support himself day to day. But it’s important enough to him that he’ll continue to write and play.

“If Isaan people are willing to listen to mo lam, mo lam will always be there,” Patiwat said.

Each morning for those two and a half years in prison, Patiwat woke up at 6 a.m. and took a shower using the dirty water in the six-meter long cell he shared with 40 other inmates. He’d eat his breakfast, and when 8 a.m. struck, the prisoners formed a tidy line to sing the national anthem.

Today, Patiwat’s years spent in prison sit on his shoulders and follow him wherever he goes. His self-confidence was severely impacted, he struggles daily to break free from the weight bearing down upon him.

“I’m afraid of being alone,” Patiwat said. “I’m afraid my friends are going to leave me. I’m afraid of so many things. I’ve had to go see a psychiatrist. It makes me think, ‘What is happening to me?’”

He continues to play mo lam, taking odd jobs to make additional money when necessary. But his life is much more difficult after prison – now, his reputation is soiled.

“Once you get out of prison, they don’t care what you did, you’re just an ex-convict.” Patiwat says. “You’re no longer an innocent … Thai society is not a forgiving society.”

Any job he applies for must take into account the permanent strike on his record. Upon seeing that Patiwat was once imprisoned, most employers don’t even give him a chance to present himself. To make matters worse, they won’t even look at what his charge was – the mark of prior imprisonment itself is more than enough to dissuade most promoters from hiring him.

“What I really want is to [get] back my innocence,” Patiwat says. “Right now, it’s tainted.”

He used to be an exuberant and passionate activist, unafraid to make bold statements. He still considers himself an activist, but he says he must be softer now. He still partakes in local activist forums in Khon Kaen, unable to give up the fight.

Although he lives a quieter life now, Patiwat still considers himself an activist.

But still, he knows authorities have their eyes on him. His friends will occasionally be approached by strangers who ask them about Patiwat’s whereabouts. Some of the concerts he planned to perform in have had to be cancelled last-minute to eliminate suspicion.

But he says he’s no longer worried about being arrested again.

“I know everything about the justice process,” Patiwat says. “I know everything … I’m not afraid; they can come anytime.”

What does worry him, however, is the stigma against prisoners and ex-prisoners in Thailand. He wasn’t treated like a normal person in prison, and with the blemish on his record, he still isn’t treated normally. Even now, when he walks as an “innocent” man, doctors will hesitate to get close to him and take care of him, instead shouting at him from across the room.

Overcoming this stigma is one of the latest agendas on his to-do list.

Patiwat noticed a need for reform within the prison walls, too, where he likens the use of labor to slavery. The prison guards claimed the physical labor trains the prisoners for the workforce in the real world, but Patiwat doesn’t agree.

Patiwat’s experiences behind bars has only fueled his fire to resist. He’s witnessed more injustices that need addressing, and mo lam is one of the tools with which he hopes to dismantle them.

“You can put me in prison, but you can’t imprison my performance,” Patiwat says. “I think that’s what I’ll always keep in my heart.

“I can feel that I’m still me, and that is through singing mo lam,” he continues. “I can still go up on stage, I can still perform, I can still present myself. And those are the things that help heal me.”

Hallie O’Neill majors in creative writing and anthropology at Drake University. This semester she has been studying about human rights issues and development in Khon Kaen.