During the COVID-19 pandemic, streaming businesses and online platforms enjoyed explosive growth, especially for the entertainment industry. In Thailand, however, one particular traditional music business — molam — plunged into dire circumstances. Yet to be afforded legitimacy, molam artists receive little to no support from the government. Today, they hang onto a dimming hope that they will return to the stage as their art form gradually dies.
By Smanachan Buddhajak
On the night of Oct 12, a group of more than 30 students from Khon Kaen University and several other Isaan educational institutions, calling themselves the “Isaan People Party’s Movement,” gathered at a food court on the campus. They were boarding a bus to join the People’s Party movement’s rally in Bangkok. Little did they know, this journey would end with them locked up in the Bangkok Remand Prison.
They arrived in Bangkok the next morning, the Oct 13th. That afternoon, the Isaan People’s Party Movement set up a stage on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, warming up for the main rally scheduled the next day.
What they did, apparently, had laid the ground for the authorities to use violence in dispersing the demonstration. Up to 21 people were arrested, mostly university students.
No one thought that, just for staying overnight there, “a student” would be turned into “a prisoner” of the Bangkok Remand Prison.
They were incarcerated for seven days in total, before the court granted their release. Here’s some accounts of their experience being imprisoned.
“Something was off”
Songpon Sitthirak, or Yajai, a senior law student of Khon Kaen University who joined the “UNME” (a political and environmental activist group) said the Oct 13 rally didn’t look different from those in the past. Police arrived at the scene, and the group sent a representative to negotiate with them.
“There was something off about that discussion because there was more of a police presence than usual. Then, it wasn’t just a negotiation. An UNME negotiator was detained,” he said. “When I saw my friend get arrested, I ran to help. Both of us were immediately put into a prison truck. I have to admit, I was scared, because they wouldn’t say where they were taking us.”
No charges were read to them, and they were not informed of where they were being taken to. As the truck moved, the destination was announced. The officers threatened them along the way. They were detained at the Region 1 Border Police Bureau, Pathum Thani province.
Soon after, 19 more people were arrested and taken to the very same place.
“I was very disappointed. It was like they already made up their minds that we had to be imprisoned, that we were definitely guilty,” he said, describing his feeling, after learning that the court rejected their bail request. They and their lawyers believe that the charges–violating the emergency decree, the communicable disease act, the traffic act, and the cleanliness act–were too drastic for what they had actually done.
In any normal situation, he and his friends would’ve been granted bail, but instead they were imprisoned and lost their freedom.
As the truck was leaving the police bureau to the prison, Songpol could only think of all the negative impressions he had about jail.
But when he arrived, he thought some luck was still on his side because of COVID-19, new prisoners would first be quarantined. The 18 men were separated and put in the same quarters. The three women were sent to the women’s correctional institution.
“On the whole. It was difficult because the food was awful. But Nattawut Saikua, the former [red shirt] leader, who’s an exemplary prisoner. He took care of us and helped us by sharing food he’d gotten from the prison’s store,” he recalled of his unforgettable ordeal.
“Punched but not responding”
“Honestly, I almost lost it when I got punched, but I couldn’t do anything. I had to be peaceful,” said Kittiphum “Good” Tasa. During his duty as a rally guard, he was punched in the face by police while the protesters dispersed.
After the assault, he tried to be patient as he wanted to remain pacifistic, although he was being dragged into a prison truck and then ended up in the prison.
His living conditions weren’t different from his other 17 male prison mates, including Jatupat “Pai Daodin” Boonpattharaksa, who’d already served his time for a conviction on charges of lese majeste.
Although he felt some relief as he got to stay with his friends, he thought the living conditions of inmates should be improved.
Like many, he called out the quality of prison food.
“The principles of law that we were studying weren’t applicable at all. I was very baffled by the justice system. We couldn’t even get bail,” he said.
He was worried that if they finished their 14-day prison quarantine period, he would be separated from his friends.
“I was very anxious. If I was put into another quarter with other random prisoners, I don’t know what would have happened,” he said.
Living in the quarantine area, we 18 inmates were able to go through our daily routine, showering, eating, etc., on the top floor of the prison, separated from other prisoners. That made our lives there go by a little easier.
“Falling ill after arrest”
Suffering hyperthyroid, complicating the condition of his blood and heart, his life in prison became harder than it was for others.
“When I was put into the prison truck, my arms were tied with plastic ties. In the truck, there were 19 who had been arrested and six police officers,” he said. “It was very cramped. There was no air flow. My hyperthyriod acted up. My heart was beating so fast I couldn’t breath.”
He asked the officers to untie him and open a window, but his request was ignored.
“If I hadn’t had medicine with me, I would’ve become unconscious. I could’ve passed out or had a heart attack. It was so awful. I nearly died and they did nothing. Luckily I had some medicine with me. My friends struggled to take the meds out of my pocket and give it to me; everyone’s hands were tied up,” he said, recalling that moment of life and death.
During his first days in the prison, he wasn’t so scared. More, he was affected by his health condition.
“I wasn’t so afraid about getting arrested. I was worried I’d die because of my disease because they wouldn’t allow me to take my meds with me, although I explained they weren’t common meds that could be bought without a prescription. I had to ask for a doctor to validate my condition. Then they allowed me to bring the meds.”
Although he was freed soon after, he faced a new problem–a worsening conflict with his family. He however decided to go on with his political activities.
LGBTIQ in a prison
Wanchai “Phum” Suthongsa grew up surrounded by political rallies. He’s from Na Nong Bong village in Loei province, the community spearheading the movement against the gold mine operations in the area. He got involved in demonstrations from a young age. That was how he got to know Pai Daodin, who had often joined in with local rallies.
Phum just graduated from the law faculty at Khon Kaen University and awaits his diploma to be issued. In the meantime, he joined the political movement with Pai Daodin.
“When I got arrested, I learned that the law is being used in such a discriminatory manner. What I learned was different from what was happening in reality,” he said, adding that he wasn’t allowed to use a cellphone to call his family or a lawyer while in a prison truck. That, according to what he’s learned, is a violation of the rights of suspects.
“I grew up in a community actively opposed to a gold mine. I’d experienced it all. That might have built some immunity for me,” he said.
Raised among people fighting for a cause, Phum wasn’t completely in shock from getting arrested. However, being a LGBT and having a somewhat feminine manner, there were certain matters that made him uncomfortable, especially regarding privacy.
“In prison, you can’t really choose to be a man, a woman, or a LGBT,” he said. “But I think about it: regardless of your gender, you deserve better living conditions than this.”
After being released, Phum insisted he’d continue the fight. He thinks that being arrested has inspired him to fight even harder.
“Having understanding parents is quite encouraging for me to go on,” he said, explaining why he’s decided to continue even though he might be arrested.
From a student to a prisoner
The three of them were separated and not staying together like the men.
“It was a prison. I had to change my title from student to female inmate,” she said.
The first night there is hard to forget. She tried to put her mind at ease but was still shocked by the number of inmates crammed into one cell.
“There were 76 people in the same cell. There was almost no space for walking. We slept on a blanket,” she said. “On the first night, I cried myself to sleep. I had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to shower and eat. I think it was the worst food I’d ever had in my life.”
The loneliness from being separated from her friends worsened the hardship she experienced in prison.
“Because of the COVID-19 prevention measures, my family couldn’t visit me. My parents came to Bangkok and met with the lawyer but they could only send me a letter through my lawyer. I told myself I must remain strong,” she said, recalling the ordeal.
While in there, she didn’t get to socialize much with other inmates. Someone told her that the wardens ordered everyone to leave her alone.
The seventh day of imprisonment was the end of her temporary detention. All suspects attended a hearing through a video call. Initially, the court approved the extension of her detention. She started to come to terms with the fact that she might have to stay there for a long time.
However, later that same day, she heard her name being called in the prison, saying she would be released. She ran to the warden. She was to be free again.
One by one, all the 21 arrested that day were released. They still have a lingered question–why were they arrested for holding a peaceful rally?