Photo exhibition illuminates the darkness of enforced kidnappings

Fifteen dead-end cold cases of enforced disappearances in Thailand are brought to light through a new photo exhibition.


“This is not a political act” (see larger image)

Jirawut Ueasungkomsate debuts his first solo exhibition, “This is not a political act” which uses simple devices of light and dark, paired with testimonies and old photos, to demystify the often whispered-about issue of enforced disappearances in Thailand.
 
In a pitch-dark, black-walled room in a Thong Lo shophouse-slash-gallery, Jirawut places several blown-up photos of victims who have been forcibly kidnapped. Audience members must use flashlights to view the black-and-white photos of those who have gone missing and are largely unknown to the public. Underneath their photos are selected phrases that increase the humanity of the blurry figures in the photographs, such as “he was going to renew his driving license” or “he told his father he was going to see his mother.” 
 
The exhibitions selects fifteen forcibly-disappeared men, and the sheer range of their walks of life reveal that no one has been exempt from abduction: barbers, gardeners, rubber tree tappers. Lawyers, teachers, janitors. Senators, civil servants, and even a bus ticket taker. Although the majority of these men were Malays living in the Deep South, victims include Thais, Karen, and even Thai-Chinese: Isaan, and even Bangkok has not been safe from kidnappings. 
 

Participating audience members illuminating victims’ portraits on 4 March (Photo from WTF Bar & Gallery’s Facebook page)
 
Each of these men’s disappearances reads like the beginning of a detective story. A man, perhaps a newcomer in a village, a senator campaigning against the 1991 military government’s acts, or a witness to the destruction of a Karen village, is visited at his home, office, mosque, or on the road in the unholy hours of the night. The visitors are in civilian or military garb, or once, even in wooden masks. If they go to the man, they may shove him into a vehicle, accusing him of illegally possessing wild honey. If they go to his home, they intimidate his wife, once even promising her that they would return her husband later. 
 
In the morning, the man’s red Subaru is found, while another’s motorbike is lost, and yet another man’s car has been returned, but parked oddly and with army boot prints on the back seat. Some relatives get the chance to see or phone their loved ones one last time. Their reports filed with the police bear no fruit.
 
Jirawut Ueasungkomsate and Angkhana Neelapaijit, wife of forcibly disappeared Somchai Neelapaijit, on the opening night of “This is not a political act”
 
These stories read like the beginning of a chapter of Detective Conan or an episode of Sherlock or CSI—but the rest of the book has been torn out; the episode cut. There are no investigations nor solutions, only tragedies and empty spaces where just yesterday there was a father, a son, a brother, a husband. 
 
“My father was just gone,” said the daughter of the bus ticket taker, who spoke at the exhibition’s opening night. “When I go to government offices to ask for help to find my father, they treat me like a terrorist’s daughter.” She sobbed in the darkness and the artist pointed a tiny flashlight on her so we could see her tears.
 
If you would like to illuminate (both figuratively and literally) yourself on forced disappearances, applying human faces and stories to this terrifying, institutionalized practice, be sure to visit WTF Gallery & Cafe at 7 Sukhumvit Soi 51, near BTS Thong Lo from 4 March to 3 April. “This is not a political act” is sponsored by Amnesty International Thailand and the Justice for Peace Foundation. 

 

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