Interview with Jakrapob Penkair

Jakrapob Penkair, former minister under the Thaksin government and a red-shirt leader, has fled Thailand and been in exile after the Abhisit government's first crackdown on the red-shirt movement in April 2009.  He was interviewed by Prachatai's special reporter on 31 May this year.

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Is the lese majeste crime a tool to silence the opposition?

I think LM in Thailand has been put there as a custom of Thailand. It is not only a law but a norm and even more, it is now the main part of the culture. In that sense, LM is an off-limit issue that everyone should be aware of. This notion has grown out of his time and that is why it is so hard to campaign against it because it is like hitting yourself against a brick wall of culture.

What is the trend you see in the use of 2007 Computer Crimes Act and Article 112 of the Criminal Code (lese majeste)?

While in the past it was only applied to the famous ones or to the ones who should be seen as examples of others, arrests are now made on regular citizens showing that the application of LM is now crippling from setting an example to real prosecution. I think it is a trend that already happens in a partial way and will continue to grow. The LM framework covers not only the King but also the Queen and the successor and the regent.

I don’t think these laws would be amended or cancelled. To struggle against Article 112 and CCA has been the last indirect warfare between classes of people in Thailand. Without the struggle through these laws, the struggle might be more direct. And no one would know where it would lead. Actually, it is a good chance for the power to rethink what they have done with these laws.

What was your reaction when Somyot revealed that you were the author of the articles he is incarcerated for?

First, let me say that this case is an extreme injustice and I will support anything that would help to get him out of jail. And I feel fine that Somyot mentioned me under this principle to do anything I could do to help for I don’t think that the justice system in Thailand will really provide justice when it comes to lese-majeste. So, it does not matter what happens. If this would become an allegation against myself, when I return to the country, I would be delighted to fight it. No problem. I’d like Somyot and other detainees of lese-majeste to be out, including Surachai, including Da Torpedo and even the rest of them. There are plenty more.

Are you criticizing the King in these 2 articles?

I am not in the liberty to say whether or not I am writing about the monarchy in these articles. My main points are always the same: I like people to be empowered, and whether or not people know how to use this power properly… it’s up to them.

People would then learn from these right and wrong deeds and then they’ll start the debate. That’s the only way you constitute a country, a society, which is worthy of people to live. I do not believe in a society where there is an elitist supervising. I would be willing to let society make mistakes than to tell people what to do. My articles are along that line, always.

What are the main challenges for Thailand?

I would say the first big problem would be that most people still feel that they don’t have the right of being equal. They’re told that the state of unequal rights is acceptable and they could be patronized, they could be taken care of and things are better this way. It is the Thai way. It’s not that the people in power are suppressing the rights but that people themselves start to believe that they don’t have that right. That’s the first problem that we have to change or transform as much as we could.

The second problem would be the economic discrepancy of Thailand. I don’t think that people have the full access to the means of the country that could make their lives better. In other words there are some glass ceilings in Thai society everywhere.

And the third problem is that as Thailand has been dominated by elitists, these elitists unfortunately don’t really have a global worldview. They have a very partial and isolationist worldview and mislead the country in globalization. They could really accommodate the country and its people in a better way to make us being the beneficiaries of the globalization but I think Thailand is very behind that. When you look at Bangkok and you see all the modern architectures… none of them belong to the people. People are the ones who walk between buildings. People don’t take BTS all the time – the skytrain – they take motorcycles there. BTS is for the middle-class and higher.

But it looks good and you can show it around as “it is my country” but how much is it yours really? Even the latest flood problem from last year, if you look closer to it you’ll see the economic and social injustice in there. The decision made to let these areas flooded and the other areas saved. That’s it. That would create an outcry elsewhere! You would still talk about this until today. And that goes back to the #1 point that I made about people feeling the right to cry out.

Where does your thinking come from then?

I don’t know. It came eventually. I was a conservative; I always cut my hair right, dressed in a very conservative way, back here to my school coat… I am a boyscout. The transitional point for me was when I joined the Thaksin government in 2003.That’s my awakening because under Thaksin’s leadership, right or wrong, perfect or imperfect, it is probably the first time that people knew that they have the right to be better economically, socially and politically. And I started to see that if these attempts would be foiled, then people would be put into a deeper sense of not trusting themselves. This grew stronger and stronger in my opinion until 2006 when Thaksin was overthrown. We had the question then, in 2006-2007, “who will be fighting with?” that’s why the gathering in Sanam Luang grew from fighting the military generals who seized power in 2006 on to Prem – who’s the private Counsel- and threatened to go even higher.

Can you share more of your opinion on Thaksin’s policy?

Thaksin managed to do what was available to him at the time. Thaksin is no revolutionary. He is a reformer. In other words he wants to change things while allowing certain things to remain unchanged. When you have that mindset, you have to go for a compromising way. If you find yourself to be going too extreme you take a few steps back. I think that’s what he has done. The message that he conveyed to the people has been reflecting this process of going forward and taking a step back. But I believe that he’s done what is right for the country.

How is it to be a politician in exile?

Telecommunication is a big contributing factor. I did not really feel like being deprived in terms of political maneuvering.  But of course what I did know I would have an assistance understanding what people feel in a particular situation [he would have insiders to assist him and give him information on the situation in the country - interviewer]. That’s the only thing that I don’t get myself. Otherwise, I think being away from the country but not too much away, geographically still very close, gives me a better perspective for what happens in my country.

How so?

If I were to be in Thailand; I would be dragged by so many activities, I could not really think straight. Being away in a physical term, I enjoy a close observation of what is going on in my country, and at the same time enjoy a private time that I am given because I am not in there. But I have time to watch them and think more clearly what I can do. That’s the best part of the exile.

What do you risk if you go back?

I think they know now that the biggest enemies for them are thinkers. They have more money than us, they have more weapons than us, they have more personnel than us, they have more even scholars at the university than us, they have more journalists and media – I mean Thai-style – than us, they have more properties than us, there is nothing they could fear from us except the change of ideas and the change of thinking. So I think that a person like me has been considered a thinker – that’s how the security forces turned me in – presented to be having dangerous view. Even Abhisit himself, the opposition leader, accused me of “having a dangerous attitude” after my speech at FCCT. That has been used as a platform of many more activities against me eventually. In fact, I am discharged of this allegation so I think that the trend is that the LM is trying to hold people prisoners of conscience, even though they could not prove them to be guilty.

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