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Theatre of the state to create fear through Article 112 (2)

Often, an atmosphere of fear occurs from connecting the present situation with the perception of the past. It can be said that memories scare us, even though sometimes those memories do not come from our direct experience.

Early in 1975, the “kick off the mountain, burn in the barrel” story appeared in many newspapers, where it is unclear how many people died in this case (Jularat Damrongviteetham, 2016: 75). Jularat Damrongviteetham studied the process of creating and managing the memory of this case where the state suppressed people suspected of being members of the Communist Party in the South, especially in Phatthalung Province. It was found that memories related to violence are still being reproduced in many forms, including stories, monuments, and memorial events every year. Even if each person has a different understanding and way of remembering, including those that agree and those that conflict with the main narrative of the community, one issue that is accepted by everyone is that the fact of the state inflicting violence on the people is something that has occurred, can occur and occurs frequently, if we connect this case with many other cases in Thai political history.

Rude curses appeared on the Facebook feed on the afternoon of 22 May 2014 almost immediately after the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) announced their coup d’état. Many citizens expressed their anger and dissatisfaction, believing that a coup should not happen, even though most people, Thai and foreigners, could guess that this inappropriate action is always possible in Thai politics. A few hours after the coup, NCPO Orders were read out on television stations over and over again, listing the full names of academics, media personnel, students, politicians, activists, etc., and summoning them to the NCPO.

In the provinces and regions, there were tens of military and police breaking into educational institutions, workplaces, residences, etc., together with lists of names of individuals to be taken to see their commanding officers. Some called to ask or book an appointment to “chat” or “buy them a coffee” through their mobile numbers or through the phone numbers belonging to their offices or supervisors, guardians, relatives, friends or even partners to inform or “tell them” to report to their local military camp. Many were seized from their homes by armed units without a search or arrest warrant. Their possessions were searched, destroyed and seized. Some were disappeared without anyone knowing, making relatives and friends worried that their lives were in danger and in some cases, searches were posted on Facebook, spreading the news of that they had mysteriously disappeared, while many people were gently captured, without violence or rude remarks. But everything is still the outrageous use of power outside the law to threaten, intimidate and send a message to their targets for arrest and the people around them.

Boy (alias) said that more than 2 months after the 2014 coup, he went to study at the university and worked part-time normally. One day his professor called for him, because soldiers had come for him and wanted him to sign an MOU stating that he would not be involved in politics. But when he arrived, he was arrested. Later he discovered that he was accused of violating Article 112. He was detained from then on, was prosecuted, was not allowed bail and was sentenced to prison. The total period of time he spent deprived of freedom was around 2 years (Interview, 22 June 2019). Apart from Boy, in the period right after the coup there were many citizens arrested by officers before they later knew the charges. Some were accused of breaking Article 112, some for terrorism and many others, not exempting women, were accused of possession of weapons of war.  

The threatening atmosphere caused those that were being followed, as well as people who believed that they were being followed, to lie low, hide, and flee. Even though many people thought that in the present age, the state “should not” dare use brute force to suppress the people violently like in the past, most people still did not trust what the NCPO “was going to do”, despite being sure that they themselves did not do anything wrong. For example, Pla (alias), a lecturer at a certain university, said that she was called to report at a military camp after the 2014 coup. “The Dean called me to go over so I hurriedly asked a friend to take care of my assets because I may be imprisoned, or may be charged. I wasn’t as much scared as angry. I felt that those bastards didn’t have the right to do anything. They are evil. They pointed the gun at our heads. After that soldiers came to keep watch at the faculty all the time.  I felt annoyed.” (Interview, 12 November 2017).

But in truth, before the 2014 coup there were quite a number of people that got arrested for violating Article 112, especially those in political movements with the Red Shirts or those related to the protests against the 2006 coup, before the state’s threats started to re-emerge more intensely during the 2014 coup, like the case of Piak (alias). Piak said that he had participated in a protest against the 2006 coup and believed that he would be arrested for violating Article 112 like his friends and colleagues that were arrested many years before the 2014 coup, so he decided to flee the country. “I hid for over ten days after another friend was arrested before the 2014 coup because there was news that I may be the next one. I crossed the border at midnight. That time I thought, if they shoot me and I fall into the water then it would be a useless death. When I returned, I didn’t go to any protests. I sat there watching video clips and cried because I couldn’t go out. After returning the police came to my house, and I slowly retreated.” (Interview, 25 December 2017).

It can be seen that threats against political activists were going on for a while before the 2014 coup, and when the coup was launched most political activists believed that it was always possible for the military to claim state power to use violence such as murder or assault against the people without reason as has happened regularly. Innocent citizens may be accused and imprisoned without being able to fight or negotiate. Some had participated in the October 6 1976 events. Many underwent the Black May 1992 incident and the state’s dispersal of the Red Shirt April-May 2010 protests which occurred not too long ago. Even though some had not joined in these incidents directly, they were aware of the violence that had occurred through still and moving pictures in the mass media. In addition, the people’s side also produced and distributed by themselves a large number of publications in the form of books, videos, songs, music and various artworks. There were news reports, evidence, interviews, academic analyses, as well as creative work, to serve as a record of the evidence that the Thai state had used violence against the people; to recall and honour the dead, and to create a common memory that will lead to continuing the legacy of the people’s struggle.

Those various media were produced to denounce and combat the unlawful use of state power, in the hope that it will be a lesson for the present to step forward to a better future. But it seems that creating learning for change will still not achieve results as good as recording the violence of the state, which has a part in expanding the results of the state’s theatre that created a certain level of fear in the people.

Online world: a dangerous area

Before the NCPO coup, Facebook and other online media used to be a lively place to express political opinions; people expressed their thoughts and argued and there were always various practical connections between the online and offline worlds. Three interviewees with different levels of education, lower secondary, bachelor’s degree and PhD, shared a similar story that the important turning point that made them interested in politics, starting after the 2006 coup, was reading information and joining discussions on various web boards before the use of Facebook later became more widely popular and became an extensive space for learning and expressing political opinions. Pla said that she read the “Fa Diao Kan” (Same Sky), Glasses Room 1, Glasses Room 2, Spotted Editor (Nuling) and many other web boards while studying abroad. “I didn’t believe it, but searched for further information. At that time I was studying abroad so I accessed academic works. I gave credit to works which are academically trustworthy, so I slowly started to change my thinking” (Interview, 12 November 2017).

But soon after, the online world was no longer a space to freely and safely express political opinions when many political activists that were arrested by the NCPO had their mobile phones and/or computers confiscated and were forced to reveal their passwords to social media accounts. Officers then could log into the accounts and find evidence of their offences, as well as find other people that they had connections with, in the belief that all of it was a network with the same command centre (Personal conversation with those that went to military camps for attitude adjustment, May 2014).

The NCPO’s threats during the initial stage caused a large number of thinkers, writers and academics to halt their activities on Facebook. Many people deactivated or deleted their Facebook and other social media accounts. Some stopped using their old phone number and bought a new SIM to use. At that time, there was confusion about whether the owners of the disappeared accounts had gone into hiding or had been “disappeared”. Most of those who fled were not worried about being detained or “going to a military camp” because they thought about it and they knew they had not done anything wrong or risky, but they did not think that they would be treated fairly, especially when it was possible that they would have Article 112 charges pressed against them, where the interpretation of the charges is ‘catch-all’ and fighting and winning a case is difficult.

U (alias), a young man with a straightforward personality and not politically “hardcore”, was arrested and imprisoned for around 2 years on an Article 112 charge after a police “sting” operation, through a chat on social media with someone pretending to be a girl who wanted to meet him. In a similar way, many others were arrested by state officials and prosecuted under Article 112 for posting messages or sharing news from official news agencies. In addition, another side is still using online forums to threaten those with different political opinions, called “online witch hunts”. This means providing information and hints to release personal information of those believed to have committed lèse-majesté by using online social media as a tool to keep an eye on them. This became an extended operation in broad circles. Data from the Thai Netizen Network stated that in 2009-2010, the Facebook fanpage “Social Sanction”, or SS, had exposed personal information on more than 40 people believed to have committed lèse-majesté, resulting in many being asked to resign and some being prosecuted [2].

The promulgation of the 2007 Computer Act (later amended) led to a great increase in the number of people charged with lèse-majesté. It changed the online world from a place of political exchange and learning to an area patrolled by the state. Almost all interviewees were aware that their Facebook accounts were under constant scrutiny by the state and sometimes they intentionally posted messages to challenge the state power. “Will they do anything to me again? Arrest me if you want, what else can you do to me? I’ve been to prison. I’m not scared anymore,” Boy said (Interview, 22 June 2013). But some people reflected that surveillance by state officials did not make them as uncomfortable as getting calls from relatives and friends warning them to delete messages in Facebook because they thought them risky. Some people had to “self-censor” because they were worried that the people close to them would be in danger, because if state officials could not find them, they would go and threaten their friends and family instead.

Epilogue

From all that is mentioned above, it can be seen that what has happened is more than punishing people for lèse-majesté offences.  Article 112 of the Criminal Code was used to express the state’s theatre to demonstrate proof in the eyes of the people that state power is real, supreme, sacred and inviolable. The article also shows that state power is not restricted within physical borders, but also extends to the online world which is a virtual space and has infiltrated into the feelings of citizens, both those who suspect and mistrust the state, and those who act as if they are the state itself by scrutinizing and threatening people in the name of loyalty towards the state.

Even so, in the midst of creating fear, subduing and suppressing the people, the state can only hold back movements from appearing before their eyes, because studies found that in the past, most inmates who were violently threatened by the state never surrendered to state power. They did not let their political expressions be blocked, and still tried to use various possible methods and channels to undermine the consolidation of state power and the creation of total fear among citizens. While the state displays its theatre of power to create fear, citizens are also displaying a theatre to fight against the power of fear. No matter if they are afraid or not, in this case truth or deception is not always the important thing in humans’ actions, because any expression can be the action on the front stage while the back stage may be something else, just as Erving Goffman (1956) [3] once stated. 

References

[1] Edited from a paper 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 group of people that are newly developing 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.

[2] See further: นาฏกรรมของรัฐเพื่อสร้างความหวาดกลัวด้วย ม.112   Theatre of the state to create fear with Article 112. https://prachatai.com/journal/2017/11/74108

[3] Goffman, E. (1956). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.