By Ann Norman
On December 3, two days after Thailand’s new king took the throne, Khon Kaen Univeristy Student Pai Daodin, (real name Jatupat Boompattararaksa), became the first lese majesty victim of the King’s new reign by pushing “share” on an ordinary BBC news article: “Profile: Thailand’s New King Vajiralongkorn” (Pai shared the Thai version of this article). It is a good article and an important article, and I recommend you check it out.
The world was outraged. I know this because, in the week after Vajiralongkorn became king, I googled “new Thai king” to find the exact date he had become king . . . And the first three google suggestions were Western newspaper headlines screaming about the first victim of Thailand’s cruel lese majesty law under the new Thai king.
Perhaps because of the international spotlight on Pai and on the Thailand’s new king, Pai was released on bail just a day after he was arrested. He still faced the charge of lese majesty (insulting the king), which carries a sentence of 3 to 15 years, but for the time being he was free. However, right before Christmas, while the world was distracted with festivities, Pai’s bail was revoked. Pai had supposedly broken the terms of his bail agreement by making a sarcastic comment. Specifically, he said that the economy was doing badly and that’s why the government asked for a high bail. It was literally that . . . and that he had never taken down the news article he had shared. He had already told a news reporter that he had done nothing wrong in sharing it and wouldn’t be taking it down.
His friends in the New Democracy Movement supported him, calling for his release in a series of peaceful, sometimes bamboo-themed demonstrations, as “Pai’ means bamboo in Thai. His friend Ja Neiw (whose mother was famously charged with lese majesty for typing “yeah” in a facebook message) helped his friend by passing out free bamboo-sticky rice to the crowds. (Get it? Free Bamboo! ) Later Pai’s father and some of Pai’s friends gathered to make an live facebook video in which one person played a bamboo mouthorgan and another sung a song for Pai in a traditional Isaan musical style, similar to rap.
Many of us remember that Pai Daodin almost starved himself to death the last time he spent extended time in jail—charged with something equally absurd. Last time his crime was recommending “Vote No” in a public referendum on the junta-written draft constitution. Yes, the junta made it a crime to campaign against or give any public opinion on the draft constitution in the lead up to the vote. Those opposing the draft were not even allowed to wear “Vote No” t-shirts. Pai disregarded the crazy rules by participating in a public discussion at his university titled “Talk for Freedom: Constitution and Isaan People,” and by handing out anti-constitution fliers published by the New Democracy Movement. For these actions, he was arrested right before the public referendum on August 8, 2016. That was a dark day for the Thai prodemocracy movement. Not only did the junta’s terrible constitution pass, but those who had acted correctly and bravely to start an important conversation were now rotting in jail.
Because isn’t it important for the Thai people to discuss the contents of a 137-page constitution that Thais are theoretically going to be using forever after? And what is wrong with sharing an ordinary news article on a country’s Head of State? If Thais want to hand ultimate, unquestionable power to some certain person, shouldn’t they at least have news reporting on him to help assess his character?
The only thing more infuriating than the actual details of this story are reading about it in the Thai newspapers, where Pai Daodin’s completely normal actions are made to sound sinister. According to the Bangkok Post, he was arrested for “sharing a controversial BBC Thai website report about His Majesty the King” and “stirred up sentiment on social media in a way which could be construed as an attempt to challenge state power and show disrespect for the rule of law.” According to The Nation, his bail was revoked “as the Provincial Court ruled he had broken the agreement to not get involved in drugs, tamper with evidence or cause damage after being released on bail ” (they list a range of possible infractions and allow the reader to imagine the worst).
Pai Daodin is reportedly very upset that at the jail, guards are performing an anal body cavity check every time he comes back from court. He understandably no longer wants to leave the jail to go to court. He is treated as a potential drug dealer, even though his guards know his incarceration has nothing to do with drugs. This young man is in his final year of law school and must take scheduled exams soon if he is to be able to graduate. To understand the overwhelming frustration everyone is feeling, watch the video taken during Pai’s last incarcertation. At this point, he was sick from his hunger strike, in jail for the ridiculous crime of recommending “Vote No” in an contest the junta arranged according to the rules “heads I win, tails you lose.” In the video, Pai’s mother is knelling in front of his jail, demanding that the guards let her in to see her son so she can at least have him sign a form he needs for school registration. Then she breaks down sobbing at the injustice of it all:
Pai Daodin is a man who participates in nonviolent, peaceful demonstration as well as normal actions that happen to be illegal in Thailand, in order to draw attention to the crazy injustice, and to prick the conscience of the oppressors. He filmed his own arrest on an iPhone. In the video, when the arresting officers show him a paper and explain he is being arrested for sharing a news article, he reacts as if he is both appalled and used to such absurdity. Pai addresses the police officers using the pronoun “Older Sibling.” The officers are meek and soft-spoken and look down at their papers as if they feel some shame at what they are doing. In the background we see orange-robed monks on the grounds of a temple.
On Martin Luther King Day, please write a letter to, or message, the Thai Embassy in Washington DC asking for the release of Pai Daodin. Please ask for all lese majesty charges to be dropped in this ridiculous case, and for the Thai government to repeal its cruel and archaic lese majesty law which is being used to selectively prosecute Thailand’s best citizens.
Pai gets out of jail (last time) after his hunger strike and his friends throw baby powder on him to celebrate. He is still in jail for the most recent charge: