On 15 November, to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, PEN highlights the cases of various writers and political dissidents who have been persecuted for exercising their right to freedom of expression. This year the list included Thai student activists Patiwat Saraiyaem and Pornthip Munkong, who in February 2015 were each sentenced to two and a half years in prison for having staged and performed in a play, Jao Sao Ma Pa (‘The Wolf Bride’), about a fictional monarch and his adviser.
The pair are accused of committing lese-majesty. Thailand possesses some of the strictest laws against insulting the head of state in the world and they have remained unchanged since 1908. Article 112 of the Thai criminal code prohibits alleged offences against the dignity of the monarchy, and is often used to silence peaceful dissent. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who will turn eighty-eight in early December and is in frail health, is held in awe by many Thais. He is the longest-serving head of state in the world, having reigned since 1946. Under Article 112, any person who ‘defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent’ faces up to fifteen years in prison. The number of trials and detentions for lese-majesty offences has increased dramatically in recent months and human rights organisations believe that the ruling junta is using the law to silence critical voices.
Under the monarchy, Thailand has experienced periods of both democracy and military rule. The student uprising of 14 October 1973 led to the end of a twenty-six-year military dictatorship. But three years later a student protest at Thammasat University prompted the security forces to intervene in politics once again, massacring demonstrators and seizing control of the government. In May 2014, following a period of political violence, Thailand underwent another coup d’état. The junta imposed martial law (revoked in March 2015) and dissolved the Senate, the only remaining national government body with elected members. There was a renewed crackdown on the media, many television and radio stations were shut down and journalists and academics were arrested.
Saraiyaem is a 23-year-old student in the faculty of fine and applied arts at Khon Kaen University, an activist and the secretary general of the Student Federation of the North East. Munkong, who is twenty-six, recently graduated from the faculty of political science at Ramkhamhaeng University and is also a political activist. They chose to stage The Wolf Bride on 13 October 2013 at Thammasat University in order to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the 14 October uprising. The one-off performance was recorded and then shared on social media.
The two students were not charged for over a year. Saraiyaem was eventually arrested on 14 August 2014 and Munkong the following day. They were repeatedly refused bail and pleaded guilty in December, hoping that Bangkok’s criminal court would suspend their prison terms after their confessions. Instead, they were sentenced to five years in prison. This was reduced to two and a half years in February.
The judges claimed that ‘performing the play … was an act of defamation and insult in front of numerous people … Moreover, it was disseminated on many websites, causing damage to the monarchy, which is revered by all Thais. Such action is a grave crime that warrants no suspension of the punishment.’ According to their lawyers, Saraiyaem and Munkong are not intending to appeal the sentence for fear of further punishment and ill-treatment in prison. Munkong is currently held in the Central Women’s Prison in Bangkok, Saraiyaem in Bangkok Remand Prison; both are writing behind bars.
Readers might like to send appeals calling for the immediate and unconditional release of students Patiwat Saraiyaem and Pornthip Munkong, held for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, in contravention of Articles 9 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a state party; expressing serious concern for the safety of writers, academics and activists in Thailand, who are at risk of imprisonment solely for the peaceful expression of their opinions; and urging the authorities to amend the lese-majesty law to ensure that it meets Thailand’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-o-cha
Fax: +11 66 2282 5131
His Excellency Ambassador Kittiphong Na Ranong
Royal Thai Embassy, 29-30 Queen’s Gate, London SW7 5JB
Fax: +44 20 7823 7492
Please send messages of support to Patiwat Saraiyaem and Pornthip Munkong in prison:
Bangkok Remand Prison, 33 Ngamwongwan Road, Lad Yao, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900, Thailand
Central Women’s Prison, 33/3 Ngamwongwan Road, Lad Yao, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900, Thailand
Updates: On 6 October, Saudi blogger and activist Raef Badawi (LR, February 2013 & July 2014) was announced as the 2015 International Writer of Courage and co-winner of the PEN Pinter Prize, along with British poet, journalist and literary critic James Fenton.
Following the death of their mother on 29 October, the Bahraini academic Abduljalil al-Singace (LR, October 2010 & October 2012) and his brother Abdulali al-Singace were temporarily released from prison so they could attend her funeral.
Just six months ago (LR, June 2015), I wrote about the brutal murder of Bangladeshi blogger and journalist Ananta Bijoy Das. On 31 October, Faisal Arefin Dipan, a publisher of secular books, was hacked to death. In a separate incident in Dhaka, another publisher, Ahmed Rahim Tutul, and two writers were attacked. PEN continues to urge the authorities to protect bloggers and publishers by whatever means necessary.