Pro-democracy activist Sopon “Get” Surariddhidhamrong stands next to the gate of his residence during an interview.

The price of freedom: meet the dissidents imprisoned in their own homes

After two activists known for their campaign to reform the monarchy were freed from jail, they found themselves in a different kind of captivity. In exchange for their release, they must be confined to their home at all times, save for exceptional circumstances. 

Pro-democracy activist Sopon “Get” Surariddhidhamrong stands next to the gate of his residence during an interview.

Their isolation, enforced by constant surveillance, makes them the only known cases of house arrest in recent Thai history. 

This is the third entry in “The Price of Freedom,” a series by Prachatai English investigating the rights to a fair trial. Read the first part HERE and the second part HERE

Sitting at the front porch of her house, activist and law student Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon sometimes glanced at the green-painted gate as she spoke. It separates her house from a small, busy road that runs across a canal nearby. It has also come to serve as a prison wall. 

Pro-democracy campaigner Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon poses for photos at her house in Bangkok.

“It’s a strange feeling, to think that my own house has become a jail,” Tantawan, who recently celebrated her 21st birthday inside her home, said to a reporter at one point during an exclusive interview with Prachatai English. 

Her sentiment was shared by fellow dissident Sopon “Get” Surariddhidhamrong, who hasn’t stepped out of his front gate for over a month now. When deliveries or parcels arrive, Sopon said, he would open the side door and gingerly reach out to take the packages, all the while making sure neither of his feet touched the ground outside. 

“I usually have to ask the riders, brother, can you please walk up to the gate and hand me the food? I can’t go out,” recalled Sopon, 23. “Some of them get so confused. But I really can’t go out.” 

To those following the news, Tantawan and Sopon are well known for their campaigns to push for monarchy reform, publicly questioning its role in Thai society. But few outside their immediate circles are aware that the pair are also the only known adults in Thailand’s modern history to be subjected to house arrest. 

The home confinement, enforced by around-the-clock surveillance and threats of jail time, is part of a bail release condition imposed by the court on Tantawan and Sopon in exchange for their freedom from a pre-trial imprisonment earlier this year. 

A file photo of Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon.

Sopon “Get” Surariddhidhamrong shortly after he is arrested by police officers on 5 May 2022. 

Speaking in separate interviews at their respective residences, both activists said they felt they had no choice but to accept the condition in order to leave prison, even though their guilt has yet to be established. One lawyer called their predicament a legal novelty that threatened to blur the line between liberty and captivity.

“Home confinement is sometimes included [as a bail release condition] in cases that involve juvenile defendants, but I’m not aware of it being used in cases that involve an adult,” attorney Kritsadang Nutcharus, who represents Sopon and Tantawan, said by phone. “In more than 30 years as a lawyer, I’ve never seen anything like this.” 

In the interviews, the two activists spoke about their sense of isolation from the outside world, the disruption to their everyday lives, and their frustration with what they view as a punishment for their history of activism as opposed to a proportionate measure to prevent them from absconding the trial. 

“It’s very frustrating and lonely,” Tantawan said when asked to describe her feelings. “When I decided to take up the fight, I thought that I was prepared for every kind of consequence, even if it meant going to jail. But I didn’t expect that they would imprison me in my own home like this.”

Under watchful eyes

Tantawan was freed on bail in late May, after spending 37 days on a hunger strike behind bars. Upon her release, she was told that her bail came with a major condition: she is barred from leaving her home unless authorised to do so by the court or faced with a medical emergency. 

To ensure that she complies, an electronic tracker was clasped onto her ankle. Her location is monitored at all times by the Department of Justice. Her lawyer told her that a failure to abide by these conditions might result in the police asking the court to revoke her bail so that she can be hauled back to jail. 

Tantawan wasn’t particularly upset at the time, since the bail release documents she signed said the condition would last for 30 days. The release of her fellow protest leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul was also predicated upon a month of home detention. 

The court later extended the monitoring and detention period. A month became two, then three, and now Tantawan is unsure of when it will end. 

“I wonder why they have to lock me inside for 24 hours a day,” Tantawan said, sitting on her front porch. “They didn’t just bar me from demonstrations and joining political activities. They banned me from everything. The other day I wanted to go see a concert in front of the City Hall. I asked for permission to go, but my request was rejected. I can’t do anything at all. I can’t go out with my friends. I can’t go out to watch movies.”

The activist added, “It really is a house arrest.”

Tawan watches the livestream of a protest unfolding during an interview at her home in Bangkok. 

There is one respite. Tantawan has enrolled as a law student at Ramkhamhaeng University, and her semester was about to begin. She applied for permission to attend her classes – three times per week – at the university’s campus in Bangna district. 

The request was granted, but barely. The hours she was allowed to leave her home were decided in proportion to the class schedules she submitted. For instance, if her class is over at 5pm, she’ll have to be home by 7pm.

Tantawan is not permitted to stray from the routes she takes from home to the campus either.  Her location is monitored in real time by the authorities. 

Once she went to have lunch at Mega Bangna, a shopping mall close to her campus and almost immediately received a phone call from officials asking what she was doing. When she took a new route to university to avoid traffic congestion, she received another call demanding to know why she had changed directions. 

“I was bewildered,” Tantawan said, “I wondered if they were really watching me all the time.” 

The incessant surveillance from afar does not seem to satisfy the authorities either. In early September, Tantawan posted a video showing what appeared to be poorly disguised police officers trailing her vehicle as she drove to her campus. 

“Even though I have my electronic monitoring device (EM) on, they still followed me this closely,” she wrote. “If I didn’t wear the EM, would they have been sitting on the roof of my car?” 

Even simple things like getting a haircut require filling official forms for the court to deliberate. Tantawan said she finally managed to visit a barber by picking one close to a hospital where she went for a medical checkup.

“I have to ask for permission for everything. They are more extreme than my parents,” she said with a laugh.

Besieged in his house 

Like Tantawan, Sopon thought his home confinement would be short-lived, and like Tantawan, he turned out to be wrong. He’s been under house arrest since the end of June. 

When he was brought to the court for a bail hearing, Sopon said, he still thought he would have to wear a monitoring device like many other activists. At the time, he thought it was a small price to pay, since he had no appetite for going back to prison.  

“I wasn’t too stressed, because I felt that I wouldn’t be able to do much in prison anyway,” he said. “Even when I went on a hunger strike, it didn’t cause much impact. At least, being outside would allow me to do more.” 

The court exempted him from wearing a tracker because he works as a radiologist at a hospital and the device would interfere with high-tech medical equipment. The exemption came with a catch however: in lieu of the electronic tracker, he was ordered to stay home at all times, except when commuting to work or seeking medical attention. 

“This is the farthest I dare to go,” Sopon stands at the door to his house in Bangkok. 

The authorities also went to extreme lengths to make sure that he followed these instruction. Police officers were dispatched to patrol his neighbourhood and workplace. New security cameras were also installed at the entrance of his soi, presumably to watch his movements. 

“You know what hospital cafeterias are like. They’re full of clean food. I get sick of it after eating the same thing again and again, so one day I went out to find something else to eat,” Sopon said. “Someone approached me right away. He identified himself as an undercover policeman assigned to follow me, and asked where I was going.” 

The presence of police officers, who sometimes cruised by his home on motorcycles and pickup trucks, caused a stir among his neighbours, many of whom have known him since he was a kid. Word soon spread in the close-knit community that Sopon was under surveillance for criticising the King, and even plotting to abolish the royal institution.

“An aunty who lives next to me couldn’t believe it!” Sopon said. “She was like, ‘That boy Get? The one who liked to walk his dog in the soi? There’s no way he would overthrow the monarchy!’ They have this image of the anti-monarchy movement being a radical, violent group of people, something like that. But I never got the chance to explain myself to them, since I can’t leave my home.” 

The show of force from the police also reached a new height on the eve of a demonstration set to take place on 30 August. On that night, police officers in plain clothes stood right outside his gate, practically laying a siege to prevent him from joining the protest. The moment was captured by the security camera at his home. 

“My first reaction was, ‘What the hell is this?  I’ve read some stories about Aung San Suu Kyi when she was under house arrest. I used to think, woah, how the heck could she live like that, being barred from leaving her home like that? I never thought it would happen to me someday.”

“And I certainly never thought something like this would happen in Thailand, because I’ve never heard about anyone going through this, other than me and Tawan.”

Another blow came when the court abruptly withdrew its permission for Sopon to commute to work. Sopon, who was employed on a freelance basis, said the judge cited his recent change of employer as a violation of bail conditions because he didn’t consult the court first. 

With his employment gone, his income did too along with one of his few chances to venture outside. Fears of being sent back to prison have made him reluctant to step out his house door for even a moment, lest police officers were watching. 

Several hours after a reporter left Sopon’s residence, a pair of undercover policemen on motorcycle made a stop in front of his house, as if to remind him of their presence. 

“I used to go out a lot,” Sopon said. “Sometimes after a protest was over, I went to Khaosan Road, or Chang Chui [a popular exhibition and art space]. I don’t see myself as just an activist. I am also someone who likes a nightlife. That’s why I feel really down right now, because I can’t have that anymore. Sometimes when my friends go out, they video-called me, so I can feel like I am with them.

“I can’t go out to watch any of the Marvel films either and I’m a Marvel fan,” he added. “I have been waiting to see those films since I was in prison. I always told my lawyer that I’d go see those movies after I was freed and in the end, I couldn’t. I’ve missed out on so much in life.” 

Legal headaches 

Given the nature of their alleged offences, the measures imposed on Tantawan and Sopon seem excessive to the pair.  In their interviews, both noted that they were not accused of committing violent crimes, like murders and arson.

Instead, they are alleged to have defamed the monarchy in speeches. 

In Tantawan’s case, her group staged opinion surveys asking passers-by whether they agreed with the royal defamation law, and whether royal motorcades caused inconvenience to their commuting. For Sopon, a remark at a protest in April landed him in troubles; he criticised the Chakri Dynasty for staging a coup against King Taksin the Great, who died 240 years ago. 

Both are charged under Article 112 of the Criminal Code and could spend up to 15 years in prison if found guilty. Tantawan and Sopon deny any wrongdoing and maintained that they were simply exercising their constitutional rights to free speech. 

Tantawan conducts her opinion survey about the royal defamation law inside a metro train on 25 February 2022. Image credit: Ginger Cat

“Honestly speaking, we designed the survey as an activity to specifically avoid the 112 charge,” Tantawan said. “We really thought that we wouldn’t be charged with 112, because we merely posed a question. Yet they still pressed the charge against us anyway.”

“It’s alright, though, as it helps society to understand the problem of Article 112,” she continued. “Just asking a question can get you prosecuted.” 

Kritsadang, the lawyer representing the two activists, notes that defendants accused of far more serious offences, like sexual assault or manslaughter, aren’t subject to the kind of isolation and surveillance that his clients have to go through. 

“Why aren’t the same bail conditions imposed on influential people accused of things encroaching on protected forest or rapes?” said Kritsadang, who represents many other political dissidents. 

He also expressed concern that if Tantawan and Sopon are acquitted of charges, they would not be eligible to receive financial compensation because the court considers them to be free on bail already. 

A file photo of Sopon “Get” Surariddhidhamrong

“The Criminal Code stipulates compensation for those who are imprisoned and later acquitted.  It does not say anything about home detention,” the lawyer said. “If it turns out they are innocent, who is responsible for their compensation?” 

Civil rights watchdogs have noted in the past that monarchy reform advocates and anti-government activists often struggle to obtain bail release while their trials were pending,  even though their guilt has yet to be determined. 

Some have been forced to pay an extraordinary amount of bond money, sometimes in the range of hundreds of thousands of baht, in exchange for their freedom. Others have been instructed to abide by a set of bail conditions that barred them from joining political demonstrations or criticising the establishment. 

“I think they’re afraid of the way we communicate our messages,” Sopon said. “They’re probably really afraid of [Tawan]’s surveys in particular. It’s really frightening to them. I think they’re even more frightened of the answers than the questions themselves, because it really shows what ordinary people think. It could shake their entire foundation.” 

Friends in need 

Asked how they cope with the isolation, Tantawan and Sopon said their spirits are uplifted by their friends, who regularly visit them at their home and keep them company.

“My activist friends drop by to have pork barbecue with me so often that I feel bad … But they told me, ‘It’s fine, you can’t go anywhere anyway. They also joked that by the time my court case is over, Thailand will have run out of pork … I’m very fortunate to have good friends.” 

Both Tantawan and Sopon said they long for the day when they can leave home and take their dogs out for walks. 

Tantawan plays with her dog during an interview at her house in Bangkok.

“Nowadays all I think of is where I’ll take my dog to. Right now, we both have to hunker down inside our home,” she said. 

Sopon felt the same way.  “Sometimes I want to ask the court to extend the confinement area to include the street in front of my house, just so I can take my dog out. She’s already very old.” 

Frustrated with the isolation, Tantawan said she was tempted to bombard the court with dozens of requests for the most mundane activities, like walking her dog and going out for a meal. “I thought about it, I’m curious what the court would say,” she said, laughing. 

To her surprise, the court recently approved her request to go on a day trip with her friends outside Bangkok.

“I wrote very briefly: I asked to take a recreational trip with my friends. Everyone is so confused about why they gave me permission,” Tantawan wrote in a message to this reporter. “I’m confused, too, but very happy.”

Her taste of freedom will be brief, since the permission came with a footnote: once that day-trip is over, she must immediately return to her home confinement. 

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