Pai Daodin and the International Struggle for Human Rights: Just Banging Our Heads against a Wall?

By Ann Norman

Wednesday, February 1, Pai Daodin’s mother was literally banging her head against a courtroom wall and sobbing in despair after a 6th appeal for bail had been denied. The continued incarceration of her son leaves human rights activists everywhere feeling they are banging their heads against a wall in trying to address the human rights situation in Thailand. To those of us supporting Pai Daodin (a group that includes Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), his case looks clear-cut: Pai Daodin only shared an ordinary news article about the new Thai King on facebook. He didn’t even add his own comments. Nearly 3,000 other Thais also shared the article. And now he alone of all the people pushing “share” has been accused of lese majesté (insulting royalty) which carries a sentence of 3 to 15 years in jail. This is flat-out wrong! But in addition, he was first given bail, but it has been revoked on the basis that he made a sarcastic comment about the junta government: he said that the economy is bad and that’s why they asked for a high bail. He also did not take down the article. The junta was also unhappy that he and his friends struck a jaunty pose (a viral pose like a dance move, called “dabbing”), when he was released from jail the first time.

The world sees a young man who is pretty cocky – because he is so clearly in the right. Surely, a country that claims to be civilized won’t throw a bright, young and popular student, a nonviolent activist, in jail JUST for sharing a BBC news article on facebook! The shame to that government would be too great. We expect that, as often happens in Thailand, this protester will just be threatened and released. Except he hasn’t . . .

Compounding the injustice is that the new King who is being “protected” by this harsh lese majesté law, is about as ridiculous as US President Donald Trump – a comparison that immediately jumps to mind because of the multiple wives and ex-wives , unapologetically hedonistic lifestyle, bullying behavior, and some hilarious fashion choices. The “secrets” that the Thai government wants to hide about its new King are about as obvious as the “secret” that Trump has thinning hair. Imagine the degree of oppression it would take to force people to stop making fun of Trump. It would take worldwide North Korean-style oppression to stamp out jokes about either Trump or Vajiralongkorn. I would say that, in addition, Vajiralongkorn has probably committed serious crimes, except this sentence has no meaning in Thailand, where the constitution ensures that no accusation can be brought against the King, Queen, or Heir Apparent. Suffice it to say, that many, many of Vajiralongkorn’s associates wind up in jail, disappeared, or dead under mysterious circumstances. His third ex-wife, Srirasmi, who he divorced two years ago, has not been seen in a long time and Thai Alliance for Human Rights has been told by one source that she is almost certainly dead.

In summary, protecting the King’s reputation is not worth the life of even one Pai Daodin, let alone the 50 to 100 victims who are locked up each year in futile pursuit of this goal. Those outside of Thailand value the rights of Pai Daodin on a par with the rights of King Vajiralongkorn. There should not be a lese majesty law that applies only to three privileged people. There should be libel and anti-defamation laws that apply equally to everyone. And people in free countries see the value of honest reporting, even and especially, concerning Heads of State, whose decisions have such a large impact on our lives.

I spent hours yesterday translating an article by a Thai scholar Thanaboon Chiranuvat, giving his opinion on the international law aspects of the Pai Daodin case. Unfortunately for Pai Daodin and those of us supporting him, the article begins by saying that at the present time Thai society doesn’t really care about the international law aspects of the Pai Daodin case because in practice Thai society hasn’t really developed a respect for the rule of law, but in practice administers the country on the model of a family, particularly the model of a father dictating to children. And that development of respect for the abstract rule of law as opposed to respect for some hierarchical family-like power structure will take time. (The article concludes by, nevertheless, pointing out to other Thais the certain international treaties worth considering.)

And now I know why it feels like we are banging our heads against a wall in this area. While the world looks at Pai Daodin and sees a hero, the likes of Rosa Parks, bravely standing up for his rights and the rights of all Thais, it seems that the Thai junta, and even many educated Thais, see a naughty boy defying his elders. And these elders don’t feel they need to justify their actions beyond, “Because I said so! Father knows best.” Even those Thais with sympathy for Pai’s beliefs may feel that he should have known what was coming if he kept speaking out.

It is often put to me that Thailand has a special culture and that I don’t understand it, so I should shut up. But Thailand’s culture is not all that foreign to me as an American. In America, we had similar attitudes just over 50 years ago, as my reference to Rosa Parks suggests. Both Thailand and the United States have a history of slavery, and slavery was abolished around the same time—in the US after a bloody civil war, and in Thailand through a gradual emancipation under King Chulalongkorn. In the United Sates, it took a second upheaval (the mostly nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1960s) before black people, the descendants of the American slaves, were really free (though of course some racism continues until today). Prior to the US civil rights movement, it was common in the South for the Whites to treat Blacks as children: Whites would often address grown Black men as “boy.” Whites denied Blacks the right to vote on the excuse that Blacks were too uneducated to be trusted with the vote. Whites exploited Blacks while claiming to be helping them. And the powers-that-be would severely punish anyone who “didn’t know their place” in the hierarchy. After slavery and prior to 1968, thousands of blacks were lynched (hung by gangs of white people) often merely on the allegation that they were “uppity” (acting equal to whites). In the US as well, people had beliefs about who was born better than who, and they acted murderously in accordance with these ideas. Today we see the prejudiced beliefs turned some people into monsters.

I see similarities between this shameful racist US history and the way royalists in Thailand sometimes treat the rural poor today. The parallels extend to pervasive harassment, disappearances, and extrajudicial murders of “lowly” commoners who “step out of line” by demanding equal rights with those in power. In 2012, there was an art exhibition in Bangkok titled “Those Who Died Trying,” which featured portraits of of 37 human rights defenders murdered or disappeared in Thailand over the past decades. Out of the 37 cases, only 4 made it to court and only one led to a conviction.

So what is the way out for Thailand? Where is the path out of the present crisis? First, I beg the royalists and the middle class to check themselves and see if their ideas about the superiority of royalty and of royalists over commoners may be similar to the abuses of the White extremists in the United States 50 to 100 years ago. When royalists throw good people like Pai Daodin in jail for 3 to 15 years merely for challenging a double standard and being sarcastic, this seems a little like the case of Emmett Till, a 14 year old black boy abducted, shot and beaten in Mississippi, USA, in 1955 by a gang of white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His murderers went free even though everyone knew who they were. The real objection is not that Pai shared one article, but the fact that he is figuratively and literally giving coup leader Prayut the middle finger, or rather three middle fingers (the Hunger Games salute.)

The way forward is learning and practicing the principles of equal rights for all. Instead of reacting instantly according to one’s instincts or culture, can we collectively and individually promote the principles of equality and equal protection under the law? These are the principles that define a modern civilized society. This is the way forward in social and political development.
Assuming Thai society does develop towards the ideals of equality and equal protection under the law, what path will it take to get there? Among my friends in the Thai human rights and pro-democracy movement are those who hope for a sudden change in the near future, along the lines of the American civil rights movement; those who believe these ideals will gradually gain acceptance, but there will be a long learning curve and we will all be dead before we see the fruits of our human rights work; and those who admit that victory is not even guaranteed.

At a protest outside the United Nations in September 2015, I got into a heated but respectful debate with a Yellow Shirt over the lese majesté law. “This law is wrong,” I insisted, “Why can’t it go today?” The Yellow Shirt answered that Thailand had its own ways of dealing with things, and reminded that, in the US, it took a bloody Civil War to remove slavery while Thailand achieved the same goal around the same time without a war. “Can you honestly say your way is better?” he asked, adding, “Give us time.” I said, “Then you admit this law is wrong, like slavery. It is just a question of how to get rid of it.”
And so, improbably, the two of us, on opposite sides of a protest, agreed on at least two things: The lese majesté law does have to go in order to get to a civilized society based on equality and the rule of law. And a civil war would be horrible.

In light of these facts, I suggest that actions like those of Pai Daodin – nonviolent protest and free expressions – are the best way forward.

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