Generally, prisoners in various cases will go through a disciplinary process which aims to change their thoughts and behaviour before returning them to “normal” society, according to a slogan which often appears in front of prisons: “Return good people to society”. That is why the period of imprisonment for any person is a “special” condition, different from a normal way of living. They are in a status of being exempted from various regulations of outside society. They are treated differently for food, sleep, rest, power hierarchies, such as their actions towards the “boss” or warden, as well as “houses” or belonging to leaders and fellow inmates to protect them.
Those accused under Article 112 of the Criminal Code are treated in an even more special way compared to people serving time for other offences. For example, they are detained for many days waiting to be informed of the charges; they are not allowed bail even after offering security many times; visits are limited; they are separated from and not allowed to talk to other detainees or get acquainted with them; officers of unknown affiliation come in to interrogate them regularly throughout their detention; they are called out to be “instructed” or insulted in various ways for their lack of loyalty towards the monarchy even though that warden has no responsibility to do that; they are also monitored and watched all the time by fellow inmates so that their movements can be reported to the wardens. Some felt that they were treated even more violently than criminals in murder cases. Most of those accused are treated this way even though their legal procedures have yet to finish and they have not yet been found guilty.
These procedures are not simply suppression and are not procedures to discipline their thoughts and feelings but are part of the state’s demonstration of power to convince the accused and people in general.
Preedee Hongsaton (2015) used Clifford Geertz’s concept of “theatre state” to analyse how the Thai state often implements the methods of a traditional state to perform the act of “killing a chicken to scare the monkey” to instil fear in the people, making them surrender to authority. He studied the case of the use of Article 17 of the 1959 Constitution of Thailand by the government of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat to execute 11 people between 1958 and 1963. They were accused of arson and producing heroin, or suspected of being communists.
Communication technology holds an important role in creating and reproducing fear. That is, Thairath newspaper continuously reported detailed news and photos of those on death row. Preedee referred to Samson Lim’s article which stated that communication technology has the duty to record evidence of the state’s violence (Lim, 2001: 399-420, cited in Preedee Hongsaton, 2015: 65), causing what he calls “killing a chicken to scare the monkey” to operate even more extensively.
Before the executions at that time, there were the trials and executions of other offenders in serious crimes which were publicised by the media. These were the executions of Chit Singhaseni, But Patamasarin and Chaliew Pathumros on 17 February 1955 for their involvement in the assassination of King Rama VIII on 9 June 1946. The accusation, verdict and execution were published in the newspaper, showing a picture of a coffin being carried out of the prison, a picture of the prisoner’s wife wailing pitifully, as well as a large number of books and print media from many writers and different publishers later publishing content concerning this case (no less than 20 books were collected).
The no less than 20 print materials that I have collected has created arguments for readers to think and wonder on the fairness of the verdict, but at the same time these media play an important role in creating fear of the power of the state and the monarchy, and together establish a holiness that cannot be violated, because those that do not agree with the verdict or surmise that the situation was something else are not able to openly voice their opinions.
So in this case, the media does not have the responsibility of showing and disseminating the truth, but only to record evidence of violence that the state perpetrates against the people and its impact on the reproduction of memories and fear of the power of the ruler who is collectively perceived as exalted and above all fairness and who must not face any argument or criticism whatsoever.
Nidhi Eoseewong proposed that a theatre state is able to exist because members of the state “participate” in the performance, with some sort of belief that a large number of people accept and believe in sincerely (Nidhi Eoseewong, 2005 cited in Preedee Hongsaton 2015: 62), which is equivalent to providing consent, according to the concept of hegemony of Antonio Gramsci.
Clifford Geertz proposed the concept of Theatre State from a study on the ancient state of Java. Later, many thinkers applied this concept to explain the theatre of ancient states in South East Asia that expresses the state’s greatness through religious rituals, customs, traditions and symbolic constructions to maintain the status of holiness, reverence and nobility of the state. But the remaining heritage of a theatre state still appears in the governance of modern states, including Thailand.
Theatre State performed through Article 112
This study views Article 112 of the Criminal Code as one tool used to display the theatre of the Thai state through various processes exercised against the accused and is considered as a serious, holy and vague “ritual” that is difficult to fight or argue against. It is generally known that the accused in these cases have very little chance to win the legal battle and the more they fight, the more they reduce their chances of sentence reduction.
An article by Somchai Preechasilpakul and David Streckfuss (2008) reveals that before it became Article 112 of the Criminal Code, which created fear all across the Kingdom of Thailand like today, the law related to royal defamation was enacted and amended a total of 4 times. The first 2 laws were in force before the change of governance from an absolute monarchy to democracy in 1932. The oldest law came into force in 1900, enacted to protect both Thai and foreign royalty and heads of state. It criminalized instigation and rebellion, protests against royalty or the government and defamation of individual members of the royal family. According to this law, opposing the king meant opposing power and to oppose state power is to oppose the king.
Separating state power from monarchical power came later after the implementation of the 1908 Criminal Code. Article 98 stated that the king, queen, heir apparent and regent must not be subjected to hostility or defamation. Offenders shall be sentenced to more than two times the sentence set in the earlier law.
After the change in the system of government in 1932, there was no amendment to this law, but there was amendment of the Criminal Code dealing with rebellion to make it consistent with the nation’s democracy. This resulted in the people having more freedom to express their opinions on the royal family if it is expression according to the intention of the constitution, for the benefit of the public, or in good faith, and the penalties of fines and imprisonment for offenders were reduced.
But in 1956, the penalties related to royal defamation were once again amended through the amendment of the Criminal Code which came into force in 1957. The right of individuals to express opinions related to the royal family according to the intention of the constitution was removed, becoming the Article 112 of the Criminal Code in force today.
For more than a decade, especially during the change of reign, Thai society has had a high level of political conflict. It appears that the state has enforced Article 112 strictly and harshly. A report from iLaw states that from the coup led by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) on 22 May 2014 until 2017, at least 94 people were charged with violations of Article 112. Most defendants did not receive bail. Some confessed during the investigation stage so that the case would finish quickly. Some were put on trial behind closed doors, and faced various obstacles in their defence, leading to their ultimate decision to confess. The person sentenced to the highest penalty received 70 years, but because of a guilty plea, the sentence was reduced to 30 years and 60 months. In 2018, there have been no further cases (Prachatai, 2018).
News on the guilty verdicts against famous individuals was disseminated through the mainstream media, especially television and newspapers, during the arrest and trial, such as the cases of Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, arrested on 22 July 2008, Surachai Danwattananusorn, arrested on 22 February 2011, and Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, arrested on 30 April 2011. Online media also reported on the progress of each case and the lives of the prisoners now and then, turning “112” into a dangerous and terrifying number for those that keep track of politics, because they could see that if they faced charges for this offence, they would have a very small chance to fight the case.
Other than political activists, it appears that there are important persons of high rank and position, like police and military generals, who became sensational news items in the public media for being arrested on charges of “defamation of the supreme authority”. This news did not provide details on the offensive behaviour. The legal process and the sentencing, a procedure that happened later, were often covered up. In addition, it seems that some defendants died while the trial had yet to end. News on the cause of death and funerals was often curtailed, vague and seemed to be hiding something (readers can search for further information on the internet).
In general political activist circles, the riskiest period of time was after the 22 May 2014 coup where a large number of people were arrested and put on trial citing Article 112. It started from the announcements of many NCPO Orders through the Television Pool of Thailand, giving the full names of persons related to political movements for them to report in. They were then detained in military camps for “attitude adjustment” and investigations into their connections to “movements to overthrow the monarchy”. Some people were “kidnapped” by the military and police officers from their residences without choosing the time. Their doors were destroyed, personal possessions and communication devices confiscated. In addition, there were also cases where military and police officers, both in uniform and plainclothes, showed themselves at educational institutions, seminars and meeting locations, restaurants and residential places, expecting to have meetings and talks related to politics.
These various processes caused an atmosphere of fear to envelop many groups, but the NCPO was not able to force political activists to completely surrender to their power because they believed that the dictatorial government lacked legitimacy in the establishment of their power. Some activists may reduce their roles and movements only to protect themselves from the dangers that may occur to their bodies, lives, assets and relatives. The NCPO theatre under the name of the state, then, can only stop movements from appearing openly just for a time, but they are ready to infiltrate and break out at any time when the chance arrives (this topic will be further explained later).
Anything is possible, under the name of 112
Phi (pseudonym) was kidnapped one morning. “My aunt called me saying someone had come looking for me, a soldier. Aunt then gave me the phone to speak to them and I heard “Hey, search the place”. When I opened the door and entered, I found more than 10 soldiers both in uniform and in plainclothes. They came into my room, took my computer and phone and put me into the car to go to the police station… I don’t know what they thought when they said what they said. For example, “Are you a trans?”, “Are you mental?” (Interview, 23 December 2018). He was then detained for many days until he was informed of a charge over a Facebook post that contained defamation of the king even though he is actually a “royalist”, and the post that was used as evidence of his offence is an argument against and condemnation of the opposition. When the officer searched through his Facebook, the officer was confused because most of the pictures and texts all expressed loyalty towards the monarchy from the depth of his heart. Even so, he was detained in prison for many months and went through many screening procedures until he was released without charge. Whenever there are calls for Article 112 to be amended, there are counter calls saying, “if you did nothing wrong then what are you afraid of”. Phi is not the first to be detained and not the only one arrested through illegitimate means without him knowing anything.
O (pseudonym) is another person arrested in 2012 because a blood relative who had a personal conflict with him reported to the police that he had defamed the monarch in front of the television while watching the 8 pm news. Before that, he had never participated in any political movements, did not attend protests, and was not known within the political activist circles. The trial took a long time. For a period of 359 days, O was not granted bail even once after 7 requests for bail were submitted to the court. When the court dismissed the case, he was released together with a large debt due to lack of income and unnecessary additional expenses while he was in prison.
Many former Article 112 detainees said the same thing, that they are no longer scared of imprisonment because they know what it is like inside, but everyone will limit what they say so as not to challenge Article 112 because the legal process did not provide them a fair chance to fight this charge. Also, being accused of this offence severely affects other aspects of their lives. When everyone accepts that they still have to live in the kingdom, they then have to compromise with various limitations determined by the state, and as former alleged Article 112 offenders, they have to limit themselves even more to stay in a safe zone, even though it has never been clear just where the “safe” border of this issue really is.
“Except for 112, whoever says it’s cowardly I don’t care. I don’t want to make a mistake again. I don’t know where the limits of 112 are, but they can shift. Sometimes it’s not guilty, but it can be guilty. Many lawyers have died because of 112,” (Interview, 1 December 2018).
Those that regain their freedom after being imprisoned are not completely free but are constantly followed by officers, and some people are now stigmatized, costing them their relationships with their relatives and friends.
“I have a buddy.”
Sak (alias), a university professor, said that he was released after being detained for 3 months because he had shared a Facebook post, but in the end the prosecutor did not file a case against him. In his initial period of freedom, a Special Branch police officer followed him almost every step of the way and kept telling him to participate in community service activities and ceremonies to express loyalty to the monarchy, as well as summoning him to “reunions” or report to the authorities every now and then together with fellow former detainees that were charged with the same offence (Interview, 21 October 2017). Another person is Duangchan (alias). After being imprisoned for many years, when she had completed her sentence, a police officer kept her house under constant surveillance. Her relatives severed ties with her since her trial, and then her best friend stopped her from visiting because she was afraid that state officials would watch her as well (Interview, 10 November 2019).
The theatre state that has built fear of being accused of violating Article 112 of the Criminal Code, involves not only getting detained and being excluded from the legal process, but also expands to surveillance of every step that the alleged offenders take, as well as their relatives, friends, and other people they interact with or are connected to.
(please read next article)
2013. Construction of fear and the politics of the enforcement of the article 112 of the Thai criminal code. Thesis for Master of Arts Program in Social Development, Chiang Mai University. [in Thai]
2018. “‘iLaw’ reveals NCPO 4-year law statistics and political lawsuits”, published 21 May 2018 . https://prachatai.com/journal/2018/05/77035 [in Thai]
2015. “Killing a Chicken to Scare the Monkeys”: The Thai State’s Annihilation of its Enemies. The Thammasat Journal of History 1 (2) 53-99. [in Thai]
Somchai Preechasilpakul and David Streckfuss
2008. "Ramification and Re-Sacralization of the Lese Majesty Law in Thailand", presented at the 10th International Conference on Thai Studies, Thai Khadi Research Institute/Thammasat University Bangkok, Thailand.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights
2019. “Hope in the search for truth: the case of the disappearance of Surachai and his close friends”, published on 19 February 2019 https://www.tlhr2014.com/?p=10951&fbclid=IwAR0tBs4ke3yrPgBwom29wNJtHYMDGkCUUSggtM8gmfORzDhP3ArncD9bto [in Thai]
Author’s Note: edited from an article presented at the 13th National Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences, “Humanities and Social Sciences Disruption in the Digital Era”, on 7 June 2019, at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Burapha University. This article is part of research on “Online movements to create a “learning space” for civilians with political awareness” under the research project “Creating learning spaces in a multi-cultural society belonging to a newly developing group of people during the shift towards a new era of society”; Distinguished Research Professor Grant from the Thai Science Research and Innovation (TSRI) by Prof. Dr. Anan Ganjanapan, PhD.