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It could never happen here: Political psychiatry and Nattanan Warintawaret

Nattanan Warintawaret is a Thai high school student from one of Thailand’s finest public schools: Triam Udom Suksa. She is also an enemy of the state, with a school administrator accusing her of being ‘mentally ill’ for the past two years and even the Minister of Education, Admiral Narong Pipattanasai, accusing her of being ‘abnormal’. Her crime? Criticizing the fact that Thailand’s 12 Core Values have become a state ideology.

Taking a leaf out of Psychological Warfare 101, the Minister also sought to isolate Nattanan, pointing out that she is only one student out of millions. Nevertheless, Nattanan is not alone, and a Facebook petition she launched to point out the injustice of a state-imposed ideology has received over two thousand likes. And, since the May 20, 2014 coup, over 700 people have been summonsed for ‘attitude adjustment’ at military camps, including academics, activists, university students, rubber farmers, village chiefs, and writers. A further 14 students have been arrested for ‘sedition’.

Crucially, the physical and psychological harm of harassment of designated enemies of the state and of ‘attitude adjustment’ has already been recognized by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, citing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and both the US and the EU have also expressed concern at this aspect of the state apparatus.

This psychological element is critical to understanding what ‘attitude adjustment’ is – a systemic response to political dissidents and free thinkers. By branding perceived ‘enemies’ as abnormal, the state is able to create a discourse implying that they need ‘treatment’ – re-education at a military camp.

Thus, we are also beginning to see the blurring of lines over ‘mental illness’. In addition to the ‘attitude adjustment’ camps, we have recently witnessed two genuinely mentally ill people being incarcerated for lèse majesté: Samak P. from Chiang Rai and Thitinan K. The imprisonment of mentally ill prisoners for a thought or word crime is a recent development under the junta and is relatively rare in the modern era except in totalitarian states. Disturbingly, it has parallels in the early-Nazi period persecution of the disabled and ‘unfit’, which led to the July 14 1933 Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.

However, perhaps the best parallel for what appears to be emerging comes from the Soviet experience of ‘political psychiatry’. Political psychiatry was the targeted and systematic use of allegations of mental illness to target dissidents of state socialism during the period of the USSR. As Nikita Khrushchev stated in 1959, “Of those who might start calling for opposition to Communism on this basis, we can say that clearly their mental state is not normal.” This concept of “politically defined madness” was applied to a minimum of 20,000 people, with other estimates suggesting that in 1988, of 5.5 million registered mentally ill, 30% were actually political dissidents.

In the more independent Hungary during the same time period, there were approximately a dozen cases in total. It was therefore not a systematic and institutionalized form, one of the reasons perhaps being that Stalinist ideology never caught hold in Hungary, which had its own strong and independent history of political and philosophical thought. Some of the Hungarian cases were relatively high profile, including that of 2014 Memory of Nations Awards nominee Tibor Pákh, who had been ‘treated’ using electroshock therapy and insulin coma.

This Hungarian dissident was slurred as having an incurable mental illness, yet psychiatrist Charles Durand noted that Pákh had “achieved the full harmony of his ideological, religious and moral beliefs, and has a realistic approach to the outside world… Tibor Pákh remains true to his political convictions and his hunger strike is a legitimate protest against the regime.”

In ‘political psychiatry’ we can see a direct parallel with ‘attitude adjustment’ and Ms. Nattanan’s case, with the Thai experience appearing to be more extensive than the Hungarian one but as yet less intensive than either the Hungarian and USSR experience. Nonetheless, the media reports a school administrator saying that she has been sick for two years now and, and that her parents have asked the school to ‘look after her’. In addition, the Minister of Education described the 12 Core Values as “flawless” – in other words, a complete ideology – one of the pre-requisites of totalitarianism as compared to the more common authoritarianism.

Ms. Nattanan expresses a comprehensive understanding of the situation facing her, as did Pákh. The Civic Duties exam subject she chose not to answer a question forcing children to denounce the widely-supported 14 students of the New Democracy Movement, who were characterized as undermining ‘Thainess’. Given that Ms. Nattanan had actually signed a petition for their release, she refused to answer. Another question asked her how children could implement the 12 Core Values of Thai people – a state ideology which is fast becoming a ‘political theology’ along the lines described by Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. The 12 Values also appears to be being used as a ‘loyalty test’ for children, together with mandatory monarchism. Ms. Nattanan saw the questions and the 12 Core Values as a rigid totalitarian ideology and chose to reject the entire paper, following it up with a Facebook letter to General Prayuth.

Crucially, Ms. Nattanan has a comprehensive ideology of her own, one quite possibly supported by millions of people in Thailand – she is secretary-general of Education for Liberation of Siam. This group wishes to promote “the belief that an educational reform in Thailand is a necessity, and the philosophy of the group believes that education should emphasize at human aspects, student and teachers’ beliefs, respect towards humanities and the knowledge inside individuals, as in not seeing us as empty vessels to force foreign ideologies into or exercising authorities (creating rules to name one) without consulting the principals of logic, democracy and human rights. In essence, this group's existence is a testament to the Thai youths' dedication and determination to oppose the usage of education system as an instrument for propaganda or usage with hidden political agendas.”

The use of ‘Siam’ refers to the period prior to the Phibul Songgram military dictatorship of 1938-1944 and its 12 Cultural Mandates. These mandates renamed Siam ‘Thailand’ and created a nation-state or ‘ethnocracy’ founded on a race-based nationalism centering on the Central Thais, only approximately 30% of the population; a Bangkok-directed cultural and religious hegemony of ‘Thainess’; and a totalitarian system of how to dress, work, and think.

The concept of ‘liberating Siam’ therefore has considerable symbolic meaning. It has also been championed by Charnvit Kasetsirim former Rector of Thammasat University, who in 2009 wrote a public letter to the then Prime Minister, Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva. The first suggested reform reads as follows: “First: To amend the words ‘Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand’ to read either ‘Constitution of the Kingdom of Siam’ or ‘Constitution of Siam,’ in order  to  promote  ‘unity,’  ‘harmony,’ and ‘reconciliation’ in our country,  whose more than sixty million citizens include over fifty distinct ethnic groups with their own languages:  Thai,  Tai, Yuan, Lao, Lue, Melayu, Mon, Khmer, Kui, Teochiu, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hailam,  Hakka, Cham, Javanese, Sakai, Mokhaen, Tamil, Pathan, Persian, Arab, Ho, Phuan,  Tai Yai, Phu Tai, Khuen, Viet, Yong, Lawa, Hmong, Karen, Palong, Museur, Akha, Kammu, Malabari, Chong, Nyakur,  Bru, Orang Laut, Westerners of various kinds,  people of mixed descent, etc, etc.” The implication of this point is formal recognition of ethnicities – self-identification, pluralism, and autonomy, in what would necessarily have to be a complex socio-political approach, perhaps a consociational social democracy.

Reform of the education system in the spirit of old Siam therefore implies Ms. Nattanan possesses a sophisticated ideology. In addition, Ms. Nattanan’s dream is a worthy one. Moreover, she does not reject the 12 Core Values themselves but the way that they have been mandated by a man who has become an absolute dictator. Like Pakh, she has a “full harmony of… ideological, religious and moral beliefs, and has a realistic approach to the outside world.”

Ms. Nattanan has been persecuted while a minor and a schoolchild, for protesting the overlap of religion and political theory. Her case, in other words, must be the first to be championed by Thailand’s new National Human Rights Commissioners. If they are incapable of this, Thailand’s march towards totalitarianism will only continue. And when the hundreds of cases of ‘abnormal people’ become thousands – or more worryingly, fade to a handful because the political theology of the 12 Core Values becomes all-embracing and any protest is stifled by the emerging ‘political psychiatry’ – we will be able to look back at this case and remember. We thought it could never happen in Thailand. But it did. It started in 2015, with a schoolchild.

"Freedom of expression and free thinking should prevail in society, or we have no future."

Nattanan Warintawaret