‘Repression breeds defiance’: Thai activists rebellious in detention | Politics News

The walls seemed to be closing in on Anon Nampa as he attempted to sleep on a small mat inside Bangkok’s infamous remand center in August.

Throughout a long and restless night, the activist’s mind wandered to the recent protests in Thailand.

The unprecedented call for reform of the powerful monarchy in the protests might have invigorated the tens of thousands who took to the streets of Bangkok, but it shocked the country’s establishment.

As one of the leaders of the movement, Anon knew he was likely to be imprisoned, but as he sat in his cell he felt a sense of accomplishment.

“The movement has succeeded,” the 37-year-old human rights lawyer told Al Jazeera from his office in Bangkok after his release in March after seven months in prison. “All the seeds have been planted – we just have to wait for them to sprout.”

Over the past two years, protesters have called for the resignation of prime minister and former coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha and for new elections.

But it was their calls for royal reform that were truly groundbreaking.

The call for a public scrutiny of the Thai king has shattered long-held taboos surrounding the monarchy, and the protests have sparked heated public debate over the royal palace’s role in the country’s politics. Such conversations would have been unthinkable during the reign of King Bhumibol Aduladej, but the advent of his son, King Vajiralongkorn, who critics say tightened his grip on political power, left more room for debate. , even with sweeping royal libel, or lèse-majesté, laws.

Pro-democracy protest leaders Anon Nampa (left) and Panupong ‘Mike’ Jadnok both spent time in jail when they were denied bail for royal libel and sedition [File: Diego Azubel/EPA]

The government ordered police to quell the protests and dozens were arrested. By August, most of the movement’s top leaders were behind bars, charged with royal libel and sedition. Some of the young men and women fell ill, others doubted they would ever recover.

Panupong ‘Mike’ Jadnok, 25, another prominent activist, shared much of the same prison sentence with Anon. The two men are close friends and have been fellow scholars on the front lines of the anti-government movement for the past two years. Mike also faces lèse-majesté, sedition and other charges related to the protest.

“I spoke to Anon and Penguin every day, we talked about politics and how we need to fix the justice system,” Mike told Al Jazeera, referring to fellow activist Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak. prominent Thai who was also recently released on bail.

“But I also spoke to other prisoners who came to see me,” he said, noting that even the most hardened criminals knew they were inside for political reasons and sometimes felt inspired by them. their bravery.

“The arrests reveal how broken the justice system is in Thailand,” Mike said. “So now we have to work to change it.”

Although the activists told Al Jazeera they had not been abused or threatened behind bars, the experience had an emotional impact.

“The time spent in prison has affected us all,” Mike told Al Jazeera. “I’ve lost my sense of security, so I’m having a hard time finding my safe space. I’m looking for that space where I can feel good, know that everything was worth it. I just want to spend time with my family and recover.

But if the authorities hoped that the removal of the leaders of the movement would put an end to the protests, they were mistaken.

Protests have persisted and there have been tales of torture and violence as the government struggled to assert its authority throughout the past year.

Rights groups say the crackdown has only worsened the regression of human rights in Thailand.

“Thai authorities have prosecuted dissidents, violently dispersed peaceful protests, and censored news and social media,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in a January statement. “Respect for human rights in Thailand has gone from bad to worse as the government’s promises of reform remain unfulfilled.

Anti-government protesters give a three-finger salute and wave the Thai flag during a rally on a Bangkok street last September
Even with the leaders of the protest movement behind bars, people have continued to take to the streets to demand political reform [File: Diego Azubel/EPA]

Thailand has faced political instability since 2014, when then-army chief Prayuth led a coup to overthrow Thailand’s democratically elected government. He then reinvented himself as a civilian politician and was elected prime minister after winning a controversial election in 2018.

Prayuth had hoped the election would put an end to demands for democratic reform, but discontent continued and protests flared up again in 2020 shortly after the country’s most progressive opposition party, Future Forward, dissolved after a strong showing. electoral.

The kidnapping of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent critic of the exiled monarchy who was hiding in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, helped galvanize the movement by bringing tens of thousands to the streets.

Royal libel laws, also known as Section 112, have long limited criticism, with those convicted facing up to 15 years in prison for each offence. Rights groups say the Thai government is using legislation as well as sedition and computer crime laws as weapons to silence opponents.

Anon understands such tactics more than most. He faces several counts of lèse-majesté and charges of sedition.

But since March, with street protests apparently ending amid concerns over the use of 112, most activists have been released on bail amid significant public pressure.

Authorities have told activists to refrain from mobilizing protests and avoid “offending the monarchy”, or risk a further prison sentence. But the warnings haven’t stopped them from speaking out – if anything, the prison experience has made them even more committed to their cause.

“I’ve been in jail four times now,” Anon said. “Of course I’m happy to be released, but we’re all even more motivated and know what we need to do to correct justice. We grew even more through the experience.

Although Anon is optimistic about the future, he admits prison hasn’t been easy. He declined to go into specifics, but fell ill behind bars and described a psychologically difficult space.

“It was a negative environment, but we tried to be as positive as possible to get through it,” Anon said.

“New Resistance”

At least 1,787 people have been prosecuted for participating in Thai protests from 2020 to 2022, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

The legal group has documented 173 cases where people have been accused of royal libel during the same period. Earlier this week, two citizen journalists were also charged with Section 112 and face 15 years in prison for live-streaming an event at a mall.

“Thai authorities seem to think they have succeeded in suppressing challenges to the monarchy,” Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. “Most of the leaders of the youth-led democracy movement, known for their iconic three-finger salute, are now bound by restrictive bail conditions prohibiting them from making critical comments about the monarchy and participating in demonstrations of street or any political activity – otherwise they would be put back into prolonged pretrial detention.

The king is often criticized for his lavish lifestyle (estimates of his wealth start at $30 billion) and spends much of his time at a luxury resort in southeastern Germany. But critics say he wants to restore an absolute monarchy and control the country’s military-backed rulers – a palace-control arrangement a new generation of Thais find unconscionable.

A woman carries an umbrella decorated with posters calling for the repeal of Thailand's royal defamation laws, known as 112.
A protester carries an umbrella adorned with signs saying “No to Article 112”, a legal provision in Thailand’s Penal Code regarding any defamation of the monarchy. Rights groups say the law is being used to suppress criticism [File: Sakchai Lalit/AP Photo]

One of the latest lèse-majesté defendants is Phimchanok Jaihong, a 24-year-old activist who has been involved in publicity stunts such as placing banners or fake bodies in public places, or projecting anti-government messages on public places. large buildings.

Sunai added, “Repression breeds defiance and now they face new resistance.”

The researcher says new networks of dissident citizens are emerging, including “Thalu Wang” (Shattering the Palace) and “Draconis Revolution”, an anti-government group known for stunts focused on the royal family.

Thinking back to his time in prison, Anon recalls the moment he first walked into the narrow concrete hallways he was forced to call home for six months. When he entered the compound, a wave of people shouted at him from their cells. When he looked up, he saw a row of prisoners raising the three-finger salute through the bars – a symbol of defiance that was taken from the Hunger Games movies and has come to define the struggle of the Southeast Asia against authoritarianism.

By raising their hands, the prisoners acknowledged the democratic movement and Anon’s invaluable role in it. Even inside the prison, the movement was alive.

“I never gave up hope,” Anon said with conviction. “Society has already changed, and I don’t believe we will go back.”

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