Tom Dundee: French-educated country singer-turned-lèse majesté prisoner

Thanat Thanawatcharanon aka Tom Dundee was recognized as a celebrity for more than a decade before he disappeared from the media. Recently he re-appeared after being accused of defaming the monarchy and violating orders of the military government.
 
According to Wikipedia, the nickname ‘Tom Dundee’ is the combination of the name of a character in the Indiana Jones series of films and the name of the city of Dundee in Scotland. But Tom explained that ‘Dundee’ was given by a member of his band, Sek of the Zu Zu band, after the character in the ‘Crocodile Dundee’ movie who shares his cheeky personality.
 
 
Besides being a singer, he once produced the ‘Tom Dundee’ condom with the scent of frangipani. The condom was rejected by the Ministry of Culture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Religion due to its inappropriate name. Dundee, which can refer to sexual intercourse in Thai, was believed to encourage youngsters to have sex.
 
On 20 May, Tom was 57 years old, and had been in prison for 11 months. Two days ago he went to the military court in order to hear witnesses and evidence. He denied all of the accusations and is prepared to fight the case. The court will interrogate witnesses in camera on 4 August.
 
During his imprisonment, he was subject to a further accusation of violating Article 112 in two of his speeches that were publicized on YouTube. His case was transferred from the criminal court to the military court after the military coup in 2014.
“I have to accept this, I am a public figure”, said Tom on his birthday before he was sent back to prison, handcuffed and in a prison uniform.
 
We have to look back to his childhood to understand his ideology and his motivation to engage in political movements.
 
“Perhaps, both of them made me,” Tom said of the influence of both his parents.  His father was a school principal in Phetchaburi and once a medic in the Thai Freedom Movement [the Thai underground organization during World War II] who had a progressive political ideology, and his mother was an actress.
 
He said that his childhood was tough. There were 11 kids in his family. Tom was quite naughty so he did not receive much care. Rather than stay at home, he chose to wander the world until he received a scholarship from the government. He went to France where he stayed for six years to study language, music and photography.
 
The cover of a album of Tom Dundee
 
Besides studying, he worked as a perfume store manager, a guide and an interpreter for the commercial attaché of the Embassy. He also played music at restaurants, and went so far as to exhibit boxing in the Embassy since he had practiced at ‘Phudphadnoi Worawut’, a Thai boxing camp in France.
 
His time as a guard was the last phase of the life of Pridi Banomyong. Tom was able to meet Pridi, in 1981, two years before Pridi passed away. From his work at the Embassy as head of reception of Thai students in France, Tom had the chance to eat at Pridi’s house. Tom also became close friends with some of his children, and talked about history with Khunying Poonsuk. Tom said that many Thai students gathered there to play music. Tom was taught about music philosophy by one of Pridi’s son.
 
He entered the music business when he came back to Thailand as a singer in the Zu Zu band. He produced many albums and went on countrywide tours. He said that time his life was at its peak.
 
He was seriously engaged in the political sphere in 2010 before the Red Shirts rally was broken up by the government. He decided to be one of the Red Shirt leaders, which meant losing income from his concert tours. He used to do 20-25 concerts per month but after he took part in the movement, most were cancelled.
 
“We are seeing the people are suffering for democracy, making a living and justice. The kindness of ordinary people has allowed me to live well like this, so I decided to go on the stage,” said Tom.
 
“Just like clocks, it does not matter what brand they are, what matters is if they work correctly. The same goes for people; it does not matter who are you or where are you from, what matters is whether you have justice inside your heart or not. Actions are all that matter,” said Tom
 
The crackdown in 2010 was like a turning point for Tom to fully engage in politics. According to his wife who looked after him at that time, in 2011 Tom went to talk to villagers in many provinces with other activist fellows who created the Red Shirt villages. But after 2012, Tom decided to leave the group because of a problem of political transparency of some activist leaders, and he travelled alone.
 
 
Tom Dundee sings at an ordination party on 30 March 2013
 
“In 2011, we travelled upcountry a lot.  We almost never went home that year. We talked with the villagers about democracy, the importance of cooperation in our group, while others in the team talked about history and politics. Later on, some activists had money problems so we left. We started to travel alone, spending all our own money. We did not have much money to travel often. When we went, the two of us went by tour bus,” his wife said.
 
Tom said that the reason why he went upcountry was to meet and exchange with the people in rural areas as much as he could to tell them that they were being exploited.
 
“Our land is abundant with resources. Why are the people still poor? Why do they not have good opportunities? Who is exploiting us? And who will give us a chance?” said Tom.
 
At the end of 2010, Tom was denounced to the DSI by a network of volunteer citizens protecting the monarchy, calling for his prosecution for his speeches at Ratchaburi. The network believed that these were defamatory but the case seemed to go quiet. 
 
After his heavy mobilization work and with no income from entertainment, Tom turned into a full-time farmer. He had inherited more than 30 rai [5 hectares] in his home town after his father died. He planted many crops: bamboo shoots, limes, mangoes, bananas, coconuts, marian plums, betel, etc. He relied on the income from his land for his living.
 
“He planted, harvested, and sold all by himself. He often went to rallies where he would sell stuff. After he finished on the stage, he came down and sold bamboo shoots, limes and mangoes” his wife said.
 
 
Tom Dundee when he appears at Bangkok military court
 
After the 2014 military coup, Tom’s name was on the NCPO list of people to report in to the military. At that time he was at his farm and had no TV so he did not know about this right away. When he heard the news, he contacted military officers to say he would report the next day. But he was arrested before that and harshly interrogated by officers who believed that he was related to war weapons (see more here). He was detained at the Crime Suppression Department before transferred to prison. The others who did not report and who were arrested at the same time were all released but Tom has been detained without bail until today because he was accused of violating Article 112.
 
At first, he was nervous but he gradually managed to adapt to the crowded conditions and standards of life in prison.
 
“He is a fighter, the only For Life singer [Thai music style] in Thailand. His determination never changes. He really should be a National Artist.”, said Somyos Prueksakasemsuk, former Red Power editor who is charged under Article 112 and is imprisoned in the same area as Tom.
 
“He is relied on by other prisoners and he was very funny and good at dirty jokes. His wife is all he thinks of.” This is Somyos’ explanation.
 
In the last months in prison, his jokes seemed to become fewer. Laughter has gradually been replaced by stress waiting for 4 August when the final chapter will come.
 
“In the future, people will be confused and ask ‘How could this kind of case occur in society?’” said Tom.
 
The story is originally in Thai and was translated into English by Yiamyut Sutthichaya