ON THE RECORD
Interview by Hathairat Phaholtap
Just sharing a link on Facebook put a young man, Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, or “Pai Dao Din”, in prison for more than 870 days. The prison only bound him physically; today, though out of jail, he yet endures an imprisoned freedom. He says imprisonment completely changed his views, especially on the Thai judicial process.
This former university student and continuing political activist recently sat down for a special interview with The Isaan Record editor, Hathairat Phaholtap, to talk about his imprisonment, the legal system, the state of politics, and his hopes for the future.
The Isaan Record (IR): I think it’s fair to say that “Pai Dao Din” is known all over the country now. Do you feel famous?
Pai: (Laughs) A little bit.
IR: In your own case, have you ever questioned why, out of over 2,600 people who shared that news article on Facebook, you and a few others were singled out for punishment by the judicial system?
Pai: Of course I have. But it’s a dead-end question really. I’m still perplexed by it. I have to say that as someone who’s studied law, I’m very disappointed by the law.
IR: Have you ever wondered whether you were chosen because you’re a troublemaker to the powers that be, that it was necessary to make an example out of you? Were you perhaps marked for punishment as a way of scaring political dissenters and activists into silence?
Pai: Well, I don’t know either. I don’t know what they were thinking. I’m still a little dazed and confused by it all. It’s in the past now. We still don’t know how it’s all going to pan out in the end. It is a little strange though, isn’t it?
IR: Were you hurt that you were singled out?
Pai: Of course! Who wouldn’t be?
IR: As a law graduate who has been directly affected by the Article 112, the lèse-majesté law, as well as the Computer Crimes Act, do you feel that these laws serve to protect or harm the monarchy?
Pai: I don’t know. I don’t know what to say about that.
IR: As someone who has been affected, do you feel that these laws need to be amended so that they can no longer be used as a political weapon?
Pai: Well… how shall I put it? That’s a tough one to answer. I’ll put it like this: Dictatorships tend to be very legalistic. They like to use legislation to give their tyranny a veneer of legitimacy. Just about every single law that they’ve passed since the coup has been aimed at stifling political dissent and opposition, targeting people who disagree with them.
They legislate so that they can say, “Hey, we’re just following or enforcing the law” when they do that they do, which also means that they can say, “You’re breaking the law and you need to be punished” when you do or say something that they don’t like.
IR: Do you think that you were specifically targeted using this particular law?
Pai: Probably. A huge number of people did the same thing as I did, yet I was the only one arrested, charged, and sent to prison. I’ve asked the question myself, but I don’t expect to get a definitive answer.
IR: Going back to when you were imprisoned, through your 870 days of incarceration, did the thought of pleading guilty trouble you?
Pai: Yes, a great deal.
Pai: Who wouldn’t feel troubled? I had to spend a long time in prison. I never thought I would go to prison for such a long time. In the past, I had only spent little bits of time in jail awaiting bail and whatnot. I spent a lot of time in court before I was finally sent to prison. There was a time when I was allowed bail, but then out of the blue the bail was rescinded. That’s when I knew something was amiss. Why were they rescinding my bail? Why weren’t they letting me state my case in court?
IR: Can you describe your feelings on the day you were sentenced?
Pai: It was very distressing.
IR: Would you have had to serve your full sentence of five years in prison if you had not pleaded guilty?
Pai: It’s like this. If you plead not guilty and you lose, that’s a three to 15 year jail term right away, and we don’t even know what else they have up their sleeves. I still don’t think I did anything wrong by sharing the post, but I didn’t know how I was supposed to fight the charges which were trumped up to begin with. I pored through the laws, and it still didn’t make any legal sense. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to plead not guilty and keep fighting. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life.
IR: When you shared that article, did you stop to think that sharing it might have significant consequences on your life?
Pai: Nope. I’ve always followed current affairs. I’ve always been interested in what’s going on, the political situation, and anything that I find particularly interesting or relevant, I share with my personal network on social media.
IR: Do you still use social media in your political activism or in your personal life?
Pai: I do, now and again.
IR: Has your behavior on social media–for example, sharing articles–changed?
Pai: I’ve stopped sharing news articles completely. I connect with lots of different groups of people on social media; they’re not all activists. It’s my personal space where I express other parts of myself, not just activism. I share my thoughts, I share photos of when I go on holiday, just like anyone else. I don’t think that everything has to do with activism all the time. Sometimes following current affairs can get pretty frustrating, too, so sometimes I do vent my frustration on social media.
IR: The article that you shared was published by BBC Thai, which is a reputable media outlet both in Thailand and globally. Surely there shouldn’t have been any problems with sharing that article.
Pai: You ought to go and ask BBC Thai that question. A lot of people thought the same thing.
IR: You’ve already been charged in another case after your release. Do you see this being a continuous thread in your life from now on?
Pai: I’ve actually got two cases pending, but at least the number is going down. That’s plenty enough for me. As an activist, I have objectives. Being anti-dictatorship, those objectives don’t include going to court; that was just a side effect of my activism. There’s another activist I know, a young guy, who was slapped with a court case for that whole election commission drama. We joke with each other that court cases are the reward for people who dare to stand up. But when you think about it, are these things really worthy of being put on trial? I don’t think any of our actions have been.
IR: What kind of opportunities were lost during your 870 days of incarceration?
Pai: I’m not dwelling on the past anymore. Right now I’m just focusing on what’s happening in the present. I do have flashbacks, but nothing big. I prefer to think positively. I put a positive spin on things. While I was inside, I did things I didn’t do much outside. I got to read a lot. I also got to spend time reflecting on myself and my actions, like, what’s the point in thinking about the things that you can’t do?
For 870 days I more or less stopped thinking about what’s outside. There was nothing I could do it about it. It’s a done deal. There’s no point in dwelling on it. But I still feel the pain of losing two years of my youth. It’s just a feeling of loss.
IR: Like not being able to graduate? You would have received your degree had you not been in prison, right?
Pai: Yeah, I might have been living a normal life like other people. And you know, how shall I put it? Life was already pretty good. No matter how broke I was outside, it was still infinitely better than life in prison.
IR: What did you learn in the 870 days you spent within the walls of Khon Kaen prison?
Pai: I learned a lot. I learned about not having freedom. How shall I put it? There’s not much to life in prison. It’s incredibly dull. The same old pattern day in and day out for two years and five months. But I did read a lot of books, and I spoke to some interesting people. That was the interesting part of the experience.
IR: Who did you speak to in there? Did you get any new ideas?
I talked to my fellow inmates. We’d talk about what we were in there for, ask each other why we did the things that we did. We talked about life. We talked about everything. We had a lot of time on our hands. The stories would eventually come out of everybody: stories about their kids, their girlfriends. I really got to talk to people, lots of people, you know? There were no mobile phones or internet to distract us. I learned more about the humanity of others.
IR: As a Bachelor of Law, what is it about the judicial process that stood out to you?
Pai: I saw injustices within the judicial process from the very beginning. Most people, myself included, were not informed about their rights when arrested. It’s not like we see in the movies, where they show you a warrant, and then they read you your rights, you have the right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law; you have the right to an attorney, you can phone your relatives, that kind of thing.
None of that ever really happens in Thailand. It’s like that with just about everything here. Now I am at the most furthest point downstream of the whole process, and I can see the water slowly rising upstream but there’s nothing I can do about it. Sometimes people are unwell when they are sent to prison, but instead of letting them seek medical treatment before beginning their sentence, they are sent in straight away and that just sweeps all the problems into the prison instead. I mean, I get it, they just want to quickly pass the baton. No one cares about the whole journey through the judicial process; they just care about getting rid of whatever it is in front of them quickly.
They’ll do whatever it takes to move you along as quickly as possible, due process be damned. Because after you’re already jailed, they’ve got you. It’s easy for them to wheel you out whenever they need you. That’s why it has become the norm for them to flout due process and get you locked up as soon as possible, by hook or by crook–I’m talking about the police here. Even though the law says that we’re innocent until proven guilty, the police and the public prosecutors have a nasty habit of just locking people up anyway even if they aren’t yet able to prove anything.
IR: Now that you’re out of jail, out of the judicial process that you see as unjust, what do you think needs to change, as someone who studied law?
Pai: Now that I’ve seen how the law is actually enforced, it really boils down to interpretation. There are two ways that laws can be interpreted: to give rights or limit rights. In actual practice, they’re all about limiting rights. The problem lies with the interpretation of laws in Thailand. I would summarize it up in one word: “heartless.”
Usually the focus is on the letter of the law, from the minute details of the law all the way up to the broadest concept. The use of judicial discretion is supposed to take into account the context and intent of each individual. The criminal action may be the same but there’s more to each crime than just the act that is committed.
I feel that the laws need to be revised. Some laws end up netting people who shouldn’t have to appear before a judge for adjudication. For example, drunk drivers. Maybe there are some places they need to go to be sorted out, but prison isn’t one of them. It just burdens the system.
Not that I’m speaking in support of the prison system but my point is that they’re overflowing. The authorities keep saying that the prisons are overflowing but the part of the judiciary that is responsible for sending people to prison doesn’t seem to be getting that message. They should be using their discretion more, given the circumstances.
The way to solve this problem is to ensure that the laws keep up with the times. If they’re not broken, then fine, don’t fix them. But the laws that are broken or obsolete need to be adapted according to the lives of people who are alive right now. I’m not talking about the younger generation. I’m talking about everyone who is actually living in society today. Yet some of the laws that we are still living under were written for society of a hundred years ago.
Laws have to change with society. As for the interpretation of laws, it feels as if the judges and other people in the judicial system are just doing everything by numbers. There’s no humanity in the judicial system; no understanding of the human condition is allowed there. That’s what’s missing.
IR: You’ve said before that one of the biggest lessons you got from being incarcerated was what it really meant to be without freedom. How do you use your freedom now that you’re no longer imprisoned?
Pai: Oh, in so many different ways.
IR: How would you define “freedom”?
Pai: Freedom… that’s a tough question. Freedom is what it is: Freedom.
IR: Do you mean freedom of expression? What kinds of freedom are we talking about?
Pai: No! Absolutely not freedom of expression. I just got out on May 10 and got slapped with another court case as soon as I walked out of prison. There ain’t no freedom of expression going on there. [No], I’m talking about physical freedom. I’m not forced to wake up at a certain time, not forced to do this or that. I can sleep on a nice soft bed, I can go out drinking, stuff like that. It’s the freedom to do what I want with myself that I didn’t had for a very long time. But apart from that, nothing has changed overall.
IR: You say that there’s no freedom because of your latest court summons. What kind of freedom do you want to see in Thai society?
Pai: I want people to be able to freely express whatever opinions they have, whether it’s a political opinion, their thoughts, their beliefs, religion, cultural, gender–anything at all. You should be free to be different in any way you like. Nobody should be imprisoned just because they think differently.
What I’m saying is, freedom isn’t the majority saying this, the minority saying that. Freedom is having enough mutual respect to reason with each other, to accept differences. You can’t force people to think the way you do. We wouldn’t be human if we all thought exactly the same thing.
Freedom is people of all stripes and persuasions being able to coexist without problems, and dealing with each other through reason.
IR: From your own perspective, how do you think the military junta changed in the past five to six years that they’ve been in power?
Pai: They have changed. They’re all richer. The economy is better than ever, but just for them. Jokes aside, all of the changes have been for the worse. On the surface it looks like there are some positive developments but when you scratch the surface it’s the opposite. Take the catastrophic flooding in 2011 [during the Yingluck Shinawatra government] for example. There was a trend on Twitter where people were saying, “I’m not as afraid of flood damage as I am afraid of idiotic leader damage.” I would agree with that sentiment. It perfectly fits the General Prayut era.
We’ve allowed someone who is not capable of holding the reins of power. Power can be both a good and bad thing. If you’re the prime minister, you don’t have to solve every single problem yourself. You have people you can delegate things to. You have government agencies. You have the military, the police. You’ve got all of that but you still can’t solve any problems. You have funds, you have the budget, but why is it that it’s been the citizens themselves who’ve come out and help each other sort out the problems? It means that the governmental mechanisms are just not up to the task of solving problems. It’s not a good thing. If the government was fit for the purpose, the people wouldn’t be forced to do that.
IR: It looks to me that the junta has every intention of hanging onto power indefinitely, through governments it rigged together. Would you agree with that?
Pai: I’ve been saying that since 2016, ever since they ratified the latest constitution. Me and my friends in the NDM [New Democracy Movement] were talking about that during our vote-no campaign [on a referendum on the current constitution]. We were trying to raise awareness of the fact that the new constitution is nothing but a tool to whitewash the military dictatorship through legal means, and allows them to continue their dictatorship through successive governments.
It’s been going on for eight years. The first round was when they took away the elected upper house. Then came the 20-year national strategy plan, which we tried to raise the alarm about but no one would believe us. Lots of people still wanted to believe that there would be no more coups, that everything would be better after the election, and that those wishful thoughts were a good enough reason to just hurry up and accept the constitution drafted by the junta.
We saw from the recent flooding that the government mechanisms failed, and no leadership was demonstrated by our so-called leader. You’re supposed to be right on the situation. There are problems with their economic policy, too, like their policy to turn Isaan into the next Map Ta Phut industrial zone. I get it, we’re not them, we’re not the winners of the battle. It’s fine if you think what they’re doing is acceptable, even though it breaks all the supposed rules of our democracy. But look how different it is when we don’t follow the rules.
IR: Going forward, in which direction do you want Thailand to move?
Pai: In a way where everyone is involved in designing and determining the way forward for Thailand. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on the same direction because there are so many people. But that’s the point: all of these different pathways should be allowed expression.
All problems have to be solved together. Firstly, the rules have to be fair and they have to be respected. There must be no room for maneuver outside of the law. How is anyone supposed to respect the law when you continually tear it up before their very eyes? Well-functioning laws ought to be the framework by which we can coexist with our differences, one that we should be able to design together.
I think that everyone knows what the problems are. The people who created the problems know the problem, and they know who they are. The market vendors know what their problems are. They have ideas on how to solve them but these ideas never get any attention or consideration because the people who can determine the direction of the nation are not these people. They don’t understand. They’ve never had to line up at the hospital.
The ones who are supposed to be representing us, leading us–they don’t understand. How are they supposed to solve problems for people they just don’t understand? Life is already going well for them. The status quo already works for them so it’s no surprise that they think everything is just fine. They have no idea what life is really like for others, what basic benefits other people lack.
That’s why I feel that there has to be a bottom-up solution for these problems. They have to be made by everyone, not just by one person who happens to have the most power. The people in power should be the people who can see what the problems are, and are able to ensure that they are addressed. That doesn’t happen when you come up with all of the solutions yourself, or that you have to be superman. You have to delegate, devolve, and empower other people to solve the problems instead of hoarding or monopolizing power. You have to distribute the power, really listen to other people, and allow them to meaningfully address their issues.
Laws are important, too. I want to see a constitution that has been designed together with the people, unlike the 2017 constitution. The constitution is the foundation for all the other laws. What we’ve seen in the past is that constitutions regularly get torn up. They tear up constitutions so that they can write themselves into power in the new one, like the 2017 constitution. They can’t win through normal means so they take power through force instead. The power really belongs to the people.
IR: Do you want to see a re-writing of the constitution?
Pai: The ideal constitution, as I imagine it, wouldn’t be overly complex. Quality over quantity of laws. It must have a basic foundation that comprehensively covers all of the bases, and all of the laws that are needed to flesh things out and follow in good order. The constitution that we have now is ridiculously complex. [Instead] you have to make it so that people can clearly see how the constitution is relevant to their everyday lives. People should be able to clearly see how their rights and liberties, from the cradle to the grave, are enshrined in the constitution.
There should not be a huge array of sections and clauses that are hard for people to understand. The constitution must bend towards the people, not the other way round. The constitution should make it obvious what opportunities, freedoms, and rights in your life are. That’s why it has to come from the people.
If the constitutions that were re-written after each coup were so good, they wouldn’t have to keep making coups all the time.
IR: Since you’re a law graduate, a Bachelor of Law, has anyone ever invited you to get involved with politics as a politician, or have you ever considered representing the people in parliament?
Pai: I have a ten-year ban on getting involved with politics so I’m not thinking about that at all right now. If you ask me whether or not I’m interested, I’ll have to say that politics is an inescapable part of life as it is. Even if we don’t get involved with politics, politics is going to get involved with us.
IR: One of your friends, Rangsiman Rome, is now a Future Forward Party member of parliament. Can you see yourself in parliament in the future?
Pai: I can’t really see it. I don’t know. It’s in the future. I don’t want to think about it. I just feel that I’ll always be me regardless of where I am. It doesn’t matter whether I’m on the road or in parliament, here or there–it doesn’t matter. I’ll still try to keep this spirit, keep going the things that I’ve been doing. Everywhere is an important place to be. Parliament isn’t necessarily a more important place to be than anywhere else, right?
It’s just one part of the whole body politic. You can’t just have MPs and no citizens, no public. Every single part of society is key to change. It doesn’t matter where you are; it’s more important to believe in change.