‘Repression breeds defiance’: Thai activists unbowed by detention
Thailand’s political dissidents shattered taboos by calling for reform of the monarchy and not being deterred by jail time.
The walls felt like they were closing in on Anon Nampa as he attempted to sleep on a small mat inside Bangkok’s notorious Remand Prison back in August.
Throughout a long and restless night, the activist’s mind wandered to Thailand’s recent protests.
The unprecedented call for the reform of the powerful monarchy in demonstrations might have invigorated the tens of thousands who had taken to the streets of Bangkok, but it had shocked the country’s establishment.
As one of the movement’s leaders, Anon had known that he was likely to be imprisoned, but as he sat in his cell he felt a sense of achievement.
“The movement was successful,” the 37-year-old human rights lawyer told Al Jazeera from his office in Bangkok following his release in March after seven months in prison. “All of the seeds have been planted – now we just have to wait for them to grow.”
For the past two years, demonstrators have been calling for prime minister and former coup leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha to step down, and for new elections to be held.
But it is their calls for royal reform that have been truly groundbreaking.
The demand for public scrutiny of the Thai king shattered long standing taboos surrounding the monarchy, and the protests sparked heated public debate over the role of the royal palace in the country’s politics. Such conversations would have been unthinkable during the reign of King Bhumibol Aduladej, but the accession of his son, King Vajiralongkorn, who critics say has been tightening his grip on political power, has allowed more space for debate even with sweeping laws on royal defamation, or lese-majeste.
The government ordered police to crack down on the protests and dozens were arrested. By August, most of the movement’s key leaders were behind bars, facing charges of royal defamation and sedition. Some of the young men and women fell ill, others doubted they would ever get out.
Panupong ‘Mike’ Jadnok, 25, another prominent activist, has shared much of the same prison time alongside Anon. The two men are close friends and were intellectual companions on the front lines of the anti-government movement over the last two years. Mike is also facing lese-majeste, sedition, and other protest related charges.
“I talked to Anon and Penguin everyday, we talked politics and about how we need to correct the justice system,” Mike told Al Jazeera, referring to Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak, another prominent Thai activist who has also been recently released on bail.
“But I would speak to other prisoners who came to me as well,” he said, noting that even the most hardened criminals knew they were inside for political reasons and sometimes felt inspired by 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 that they weren’t abused or threatened behind bars, the experience has taken an emotional toll.
“The time in prison has affected all of us,” Mike told Al Jazeera. “I lost a sense of safety, so I’m struggling to find my safe space again. I’m looking for that space where I can feel okay, to know that everything was worth it. I just want to spend time with my family and recover.”
But if the authorities hoped the removal of the movement’s leaders would end the protests they were wrong.
The demonstrations persisted, and there were accounts of torture, and violence as the government struggled to assert its authority throughout last year.
Rights groups say the crackdown has only deepened the regression of human rights in Thailand.
“Thai authorities have prosecuted dissenters, violently dispersed peaceful protests, and censored news and social media,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a statement from January. “Respect for human rights in Thailand has gone from bad to worse while the government’s promises of reform remain unfulfilled.”
Thailand has been facing political instability since 2014, when Prayuth, then head of the army, led a coup to overthrow Thailand’s democratically-elected government. He later 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 demands for democratic reform to rest but discontent continued and protests began again in 2020 not long after the country’s most progressive opposition party, Future Forward, was dissolved after a strong election performance.
The kidnapping of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent exiled monarchy critic who was in hiding in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, helped galvanise the movement bringing tens of thousands onto the streets.
The royal defamation laws, also known as Section 112, have long kept a lid on criticism with those found guilty facing as long as 15 years in prison for each offence. Rights groups say that the Thai government uses the legislation as well as sedition and computer crime laws as weapons to silence opponents.
Anon understands such tactics more than most. He is facing multiple counts of lese-majeste and charges of sedition.
But since March, with street demonstrations apparently ended amid concerns about the use of 112, most of the activists have been released on bail amid significant public pressure.
Authorities have told the activists to refrain from mobilising protests and to avoid “offending the monarchy,” or risk further imprisonment. But the warnings have not stopped them from speaking out – if anything the experience of prison has made them even more committed to their cause.
“I’ve been in prison four times now,” Anon said. “Of course I’m happy to be released, but we’re all even more motivated and know what we have to do to correct the justice system. We have grown even more from the experience.”
Although Anon is hopeful about the future, he admits that prison was not easy. He declined to go into detail, but he did fall ill behind bars and described a difficult space psychologically.
“It was a negative environment, but we tried to be as positive as we could to get ourselves through it,” Anon said.
At least 1,787 people have been prosecuted for participating in the Thai protests from 2020 to 2022, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
The legal group has documented 173 cases where people were charged with royal defamation over the same period. Earlier this week, two citizen journalists were also charged with Section 112 and could be facing 15 years in prison for live broadcasting an event at a shopping mall.
“The Thai authorities seem to think they have successfully quelled challenges to the monarchy,” Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. “Most 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 commentary about the monarchy and engaging in street protests or any political activities—otherwise they would be put back in lengthy pre-trial detention.”
The king is often criticised for his lavish lifestyle (estimates of his wealth start at $30 billion), and spends much of his time in a luxury resort in southeastern Germany. But critics say he wants to restore an absolute monarchy and controls the country’s military-backed leaders – an arrangement of palace control that a new generation of Thais find unconscionable.
One of the latest to be charged with lese-majeste is Phimchanok Jaihong, a 24-year-old activist who has been involved in publicity stunts like hanging banners or mock bodies in public places, or projecting anti-government messages onto large buildings.
Sunai added: “Repression breeds defiance and they are now facing new resistance.”
The researcher says new networks of dissenting citizens are emerging including ‘Thalu Wang’ (Shattering the Palace) and ‘Draconis Revolution’, an anti-government group known for their stunts focusing on the royal family.
Thinking back on his time in prison, Anon recalls the moment when he first stepped inside the narrow concrete corridors he was forced to call home for six months. As he entered the complex, a wave of people shouted in his direction from their cells. When he glanced 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 films and has come to define Southeast Asia’s struggle against authoritarianism.
By raising their hands, the prisoners were acknowledging the democracy movement and Anon’s invaluable role within it. Even inside prison, the movement was alive.
“I never lost hope,” Anon said with conviction. “Society has already changed, and I don’t believe we will turn back.”