Thongbai Thongpao, noted lawyer and former political prisoner, died on 24 January 2011 at the age of 84. Although I did not ever meet Thongbai, I had been moved by his writing of his incarceration as a political prisoner from 1961 until 1966 in Communists of Lad Yao (คอมมิวนิสต์ลาดยาว), which I read as part of preparation for my Ph.D. comprehensive exams. Communists of Lad Yao was first published in 1974, eight years after his release from prison and during the time of open politics between 14 October 1973 and 6 October 1976.
Much later, as I read about his work as the lead defense lawyer during the 6 October 1976 trial and the work of his law office throughout the 1980s on crucial human rights cases, I remained inspired and humbled by his work. This is why, when a friend told me about his death, I decided to attend the cremation.
When I arrived at Wat Phra Sri Mahathat, I learned that the cremation had been moved to two days later. The political shifts in his life were visible from the range of names on funeral wreaths which adorned the sala where his body was housed. Since I was already at the temple, and unable to return on the day of the actual cremation, I went to light incense anyway. What was on my mind as I did so was that the struggles for justice that Thongbai Thongpao faced personally and fought on behalf of others are still ongoing in Thailand. In post-coup, post-April/May 2010 Thailand, the crisis remains.
In this spirit, and as a form of remembrance of Thongbai Thongpao’s life, below I have translated his preface to Communists of Lad Yao. Thongbai’s preface is cast as a series of questions about the unimaginable which has come to be real. What I was struck by as I read the preface was the clarity with which he questioned the contradictions and paradoxes of the context in which he was arrested and incarcerated. Writing in a much different context in For Marx , that of crisis in French Marxian thought and practice in the 1960s, Louis Althusser noted that his own “philosophical essays do not derive from a merely erudite or speculative investigation. They are, simultaneously, interventions in a definite conjuncture.” Similarly, the English version of Thongbai’s preface offered below is not removed from the temporal and political context of its translation.
I will leave the reflection of the changes in Thongbai Thongpao’s political stance over the course of his life to other commentators. But the questions I will pose are as follows: what would the person who was imprisoned as a journalist, and shocked at his own imprisonment under the Anti-Communist Activities Act, say about the recent surge in charges and prosecutions under Article 112 and the Computer Crimes Act of 2007? What would the lawyer who led the defense team of the Bangkok 18 when they were tried in military court after 6 October 1976 say about the way evidence is collected and presented in the recent lese majeste cases? What would he say about the continuing arbitrary detention of both members of the UDD and southern Thai Muslims as alleged terrorists?
From the Author
“Stories of Lad Yao” is a record of life in Lad Yao seen through the eyes and consciousness of an insignificant journalist. Lad Yao may seem like a small world covering very few rai, but it was a small world in which people from many different walks of life were placed together. Even though those inside were separated from the outside world, Lad Yao’s influence extended far beyond its walls. Lad Yao was a realm that tens, hundreds of thousands were terrified of entering. It has even been said that small children would stop crying when their mothers threatened to catch them and send them to Lad Yao. This shows how far the influence of Lao Yao reaches.
Who would have thought that people from such different walks of life – ministers, farmers, workers, teachers, professors, students, members of parliament, journalists, tailors, lawyers, and merchants – would come together within the narrow realm of Lad Yao? Who would have thought that hundreds of elites would be piled on top one another, accused of crimes that sounded despicable? If you listen to the highly-detailed but distorted propaganda of the investigators, the accused sound unrecognizable even to themselves.
Who would have thought that Mr. So, Mr. Phan, and Mr. Pan, elderly men in their 70s who stay at home to take care of their grandchildren, would be accused of rebellion? Who would have thought that these men, who keep the Buddhist precepts and go to the temple on holy days would be accused of communist activities, including assembling people and weapons to destroy the government and bringing a foreign army into the country?
Who would have thought that members of Parliament, who were elected by the people and have immunity from prosecution, would be prosecuted? Who would have thought that they would be prosecuted for proposing drafts of laws to Parliament?
Who would have thought that at a time when people all around the world are protesting war and are gravely concerned about the threat of nuclear war, that people who oppose nuclear war would be arrested as criminals?
Who would have thought that when the ruling class has loudly demanded democratic rule and worshipped democracy, that hundreds of supporters of democratic rule would be arrested and detained?
Who would have thought that at the same time that the ruling class said that ideologies that do not respect religion will oppress the monks and destroy Buddhism, that 10 respected monks would be arrested? Who would have thought that these monks would be charged with rebellion and Communist activities and forced to take off their robes?
These things – different things that we never thought could happen, that we never believed could happen – have happened. In “Stories of Lad Yao,” you will learn about these unbelievable things from the perspective of the daily life of a journalist for whom changes in politics caused his life to be shot through with politics.
I am that journalist.
Source: ทองใบ ทองเปาด์, “จากผู้เขียน,” ใน คอมมิวนิสต์ลาดยาว (กรุงเทพฯ: สำนักพิมพ์ คนหนุ่ม, 2517), น.5-6.
A note on the translation: Few translations between Thai and English can be rendered word-for-word. Here I have tried to convey the spirit of Thongbai’s questioning. Proposals of alternate translations are welcome.
Tyrell Haberkorn is a scholar activist concerned with histories of state violence in Thailand and a research fellow in Political and Social Change at the Australian National University. Her first book, Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law, and Violence, is forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press in May 2011. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org