All They Could Do To Us: Courage in Dark Times from a Fighter (Not a Victim)

Article by Metta Wongwat
Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn
First published in Thai on
Prachatai

Prontip Mankhong’s new book, All They Could Do To Us (Aan Press, 2019) is an account of imprisonment under Article 112 during the NCPO regime written in the voice of an artist. She tells her story and the stories of her fellow prisoners from every walk of life, and in so doing, leads readers into her life during her two years of imprisonment. She includes a message for those who hold politics close: “(Political struggle) is like boxing. The ring is theirs. The rules are theirs. The referees are theirs. You must be prepared. Don’t view the world in a positive light. Don’t assume that anyone will support you or back you up. No one can help anyone else. If you choose to lob a punch, you have to be ready (to go to prison). Study every gradation of color and you will be ready.”

 “Kolf” Prontip Mankhong is a woman of many talents. These days, she dyes fabric to sell. Back then, she created many theatre plays straight from her heart. She went to prison for two years, one month and sixteen days for directing one of these: a play called “The Wolf Bride.” This is the origin of the nickname “Wolf Bride Kolf,” which irritates her more than a bit.

“I am completely done with bearing the Wolf Bride logo. First off, I was not the star. I performed for five minutes (laughs). If I go to an event and I am introduced as “Kolf,” it’s fine. But everything changes once they say “Wolf Bride Kolf.” I didn’t like the play and I didn’t perform the role of the Wolf Bride. If they named me after the role I played, which was Mother Ploy, I might be okay with it,” Kolf told me once. Now, she dreams of becoming a designer. Perhaps one day people will call her “Designer Kolf.”

         Whether she likes it or not, “The Wolf Bride” is part of Thai political history. And, she and “Bank” Patiwat Saraiyaem, the young, cheerful mor lam artist who performed in the play and then went to prison with her are bound up with this history. “The Wolf Bride” has to be counted within it as the artistic work of an energetic group of young people, who, brimming with progressive thought, attempted to create a new culture by creating plays with audience participation and without a script.

         After the 2014 coup, Article 112 cases were pushed forward for prosecution, no matter the strength of the grounds or the length of time they had been stalled. The post-coup period, for example, held many cases in which the defendants were mentally ill. The Wolf Bride, which was performed on the 40th anniversary of the 14 October 1973 movement in October 2013, during a civilian government in which there was a relatively open atmosphere with respect to freedom of expression, met the same fate. Freedom became a temporary, and past, state, in Thai society. Freedom is like a young rice plant carelessly plunged into the earth and then yanked out over and over again. 

         But there is another side to this coin. Sending an emotionally-alive artist into an unimaginable land of twilight was a way of watering the seeds of unmade art. The product that emerged is a thick, 800-plus page book.

“(The book) is not that sad.” This is what Kolf tells her friends and inscribes when readers ask her to sign the book.

She spent more than two years writing the book after her release from prison. When she was first released, many organizations, media outlets and individuals contacted her. They swarmed around her with their soothing words. But what did she encounter underneath this seemingly warm spotlight.

         “They were of a type. Today, this organization, that one, then another. They invite victims to speak with them. But I have to say that my commitment to them was zero. First, I did not feel like I was a victim. Second, I detest being looked at like I am a victim, being looked at with sympathy and pity. You must have nightmares … hello, it was more entertaining than you think in that prison.”

Are you getting it yet? “Demon” Kolf (the designation she chooses to place before her name) did not arise out of nowhere.

Source: Prontip Mankhong

“Many people do not empathize with me. They pity me. That’s how I feel. They use me as an instrument to fulfill their compassion and offer their help in order to display their sympathetic nature. I have encountered this a lot.  When they ask how I am doing, how I am feeling inside, I know that they anticipate that I am sorrowful, troubled, and in despair. I see the disappointment spread across their faces when I respond that I am having fun.”

One reason she is having fun may be because Kolf is an artist who can tell her own story. She does not have to pass through anyone else’s pen. Her perspective on herself and her actions is another key part of the story.

“A victim is someone who did not themselves choose. For some people, this is how it is. But did I myself not choose long ago (laughs)? Many people in the prison, older sister Waen, older sister Oon, etc., many people in the prison, they made a choice. This is how you can comprehend their strength. It’s not only me. People who choose according to their ideals like this are strong. When they are treated like victims, they will smile faintly.”

So then the question is, how should people express their sympathy with the unjust treatment that she and other prisoners experience?

“View us as if we are boxers. We go to fight. The winning side has a rule that prohibits the use of the right fist. We can only use our left hand. If we go into the fight knowing that we will lose, we are going into the ring with an awareness of the injustice. When we lose the fight, it is only a loss. We just do it again. Practice again. No big deal…. I did not die (laughs).”

         “I feel tired, I feel weary when people treat me like I am weak and completely broken. I have to smile and protect their feelings. This makes me dislike myself. I want to tell them but I am afraid they will be disappointed.”

         Kolf’s biography helps to illustrate the meaning she is trying to convey. She started off as a secondary school student inspired by different kinds of activism, especially when it involved theatre performance. When she went to university, she joined “Prakai Fai” (Sparking Fire), an activist group engaged in intellectual work. She pushed herself to read and comprehend political theory and discuss it with members of her study group. They constantly criticized the political situation and worked to create an analysis of class struggle in the present. This gave her an intellectual foundation and a clear perspective on political society, and to understand and count herself as part of the underclass.

She preferred cultural work to debates about political ideas and so she separated and formed a group called “Prakai Fai Theatre.” They performed plays about politics and society. They did activities with children around the country, including in the three southernmost provinces.

         In 2012, after the group dissolved after performing over 40 plays, Kolf commented that, “The purpose of the group was to create cultural work about class struggle for the masses. To create plays for the majority of the people in the country, grassroots people, who did not have the opportunity to go to the theater. The price of a ticket is high and they can buy food for many days for the price of one seat. My view is that good art should be accessible to the majority of people. So I founded a theater group comprised of volunteers to perform on the stage in demonstrations, on the street, and in the villages we visited. This brought theatre down to the ground. We aimed to offer an account of political society and to affect the consciousness of people through short, simple, and spare performances. Not too many characters or props. The audience did not have to buy tickets. We sent around a donation box each time.”

         The reason why the group dissolved is fascinating, and odd. Kolf explained that, “It came from a failure of creativity, and the intersection of the process of studying political theory while being buoyed by the praise of the masses. Our group was a political theatre group. Therefore, the group had to be built on a basis of political theory. If the members lacked a foundation in struggle and thought, they would not have a clear direction. In the end, we might become an instrument of one side or another. We did not want to simply be a theatre troupe for hire. Or a group that switched from side to side, one pole to another, without a clear ideological stance.”

         The image of Kolf as a petite, well-humored, easy-to-grin, chatty and yet pitiful woman is therefore very far from the truth. Yet even though Kolf is serious, committed, and very critical, the book is not full of terror. The book can be read in many ways. It can be read as a record of a real political story, an ethnography, a comical novel, or perhaps like a Thai version of the series Orange is the New Black.

         Those compelled by politics and those who stand against oppression will find something that will make them sob, shiver, and shake on nearly every page. Kolf’s particular take on the world, along with the story being told in retrospect, causes the story to increasing impose upon the reader, pinprick by pinprick. Some readers may find that they feel nearly crazy as they simultaneously laugh and cry as they read.

         Readers also have to thank Ida Aroonwong of Aan Press who safeguarded and included the ‘real record’ that Kolf (secretly) penned that reflected how she felt when she fell into the deepest dark places. This inclusion is very hard to read. Her handwriting is miniscule and cramped. The story is close to the bone. Kolf calls this her artwork.

         Much of the book is about what Kolf experienced in her daily life in prison. Hemmed in by many people all around, together they created a small and extremely chaotic world.

         “It has everything. All of it. Why would you shine a light on only one color? Why would you submerge yourself in only one color? Hello! You have got to go and look at other colors. So that that you will be ready.”

         “Ready for what?”

         “Going to prison.”

         “Ah.”

“Really, it’s the same as boxing. The ring is theirs. The rules are theirs. The referees are theirs. You must be prepared. Don’t view the world in a positive light. Don’t assume that anyone will support you or back you up. No one can help anyone else. If you choose to lob a punch, you have to be ready (to go to prison). Study every gradation of color and you will be ready.”

         This is her advice as an experienced person walking on the path of struggle

         After finishing the book, Kolf is ready to be done with the matter of prison. She wants to learn new things and take her life forward. She wants to design clothes that she herself wishes to wear. But she is also not done with prison. She continues to work on the Fairly Tell page [a Facebook page sharing accounts of the lives of current and former female prisoners] and has a project to assist recently-released prisoners in beginning their new lives. She has seen things that other people have not seen or have allowed to slip away.

         “Sometimes I hate myself. I hate that I have so much. The more I research and collect information from political prisoners who have been released, it feels traumatic to me because I feel that my life and what I have received are too good. They have exchanged their whole lives and gotten nothing in return. What is this? There is unfairness in the treatment of political prisoners. That is it. In the end, there is very little that can be done. My energy is limited. What can be done is to return as much as possible to them. Aunty B [Ida Aroonwong] said that perhaps the best that I can do is to let the light that is in me shine on other people.”

         “I am not sure what do with what I have seen and encountered. And I care a great deal about using prisoners in a campaign or in other activities. There is no going back to check with them if it is okay or not. Being in the prison is like being held hostage as a guarantee. If people outside the prison do anything, your life inside the prison is not going to be as usual. It will be harder for you inside. Therefore, a lot of thinking must go into doing anything outside. Soldiers still follow people who have made it outside. Some people have to report themselves every month. Some people still have other cases pending. Their lives are devoid of happiness. They have no work. They live a tortured existence. I try to give as much back to them as much as possible. Part of it I do for me, not for them. I do it to erase the guilt I feel.”

All They Could Do To Us (มันทำร้ายเราได้แค่นี้แหละ) is available in Thai from Aan Press. See https://readjournal.org/product/kolf/ for information on how to order it. For those interested in experiencing prison from Kolf’s perspective, visit the Planet Krypton exhibit at WTF Gallery in Bangkok, on view until 2 June 2019. For more information, see http://wtfbangkok.com/index.php/2019/04/07/planet-krypton-exhibition/.