Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, a long time left-wing union and democracy activist in Thailand, has been in prison since 30 April 2011 and faces a further ten years jail under the repressive “lèse majesté” law.
Somyot became active in the democracy movement as a secondary student in the 1970s, and in the 1980s became a key figure building genuine, democratic unionism. He is the founder of the Center for Labour Information Service and Training (CLIST), which led high-profile campaigns in the 1990s for workers’ rights, particularly among women workers in the textile and garment industry. Through CLIST he played a key role in building regional cooperation among workers’ organisations across Asia, including with garment worker trade unions in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Somyot is chair of the Union of Democratic Labour Alliance, former coordinator of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions in Thailand, part of the Thai Labour Campaign and the leader of 24 June Democracy Group, which was formed after the military coup in September 2006. That coup overthrew the democratically elected populist government of Thaksin Shinawatra and banned his Thai Rak Thai party. Thaksin fled into exile, and was convicted of various charges whilst overseas
Since the coup, Somyot has been a leading pro-democracy activist in the “Red Shirts” movement and has concentrated on journalistic activities, including since 2007 editing the magazine Taksin. The magazine was banned in 2010 and replaced by Red Power magazine. The case against him was that two articles in 2010 that made negative references to the monarchy were published in his magazine.
Somyot was arrested on 30 April 2011 days after launching a petition for a parliamentary review of Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, known as the “lèse majesté” law.
Article 112 states: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” On 23 January 2013, he was convicted and sentenced to ten years in jail.
The lèse majesté law is widely criticised for being used by the Thai authorities to suppress free speech and silence political opposition. Activists charged under the law have risen from the dozens to, it is estimated, the hundreds since 2006, and people charged have routinely been denied bail during trials and appeals — Somyot has had 16 bail applications turned down.
While the numbers of people charged is rising, the reasons for arrest and conviction are becoming increasingly flimsy. One of Somyot’s co-prisoners was convicted in April this year for distributing copies of an Australian current affairs program segment which featured a number of high profile cases under Article 112. His sentence was three years and four months.
The Red and Yellow Shirts movements arose after the 2006 coup. The Yellow Shirts supported the coup, and identified strongly with the monarchy, taking on the royal colour of Yellow as their sign.
The Red Shirts opposed the coup and were politically diverse: initially composed of many small groups, not dominated by the forces around Thaksin. Groups such as the Thai Labour Campaign and the June 24th group were important in organising protests. However, as Keng, a long time union activist explained to us: “Thaksin came to dominate the movement for two reasons.
“First, his party had the structures to organise on a large scale. Secondly, his government had a lot of support amongst the rural and urban poor, especially for reforms to provide universal health care. The election of his government was a big shift in Thai politics, where for the first time poor Thais saw that they had elected a government that bought significant change. This created much greater engagement with politics.”
“The labour movement split between Red and Yellow shirts. For example, state enterprises unions supported the Yellow shirts because of Thaksin’s program of privatisation. Many NGOs also supported the Yellow shirts, because Thaksin was a big capitalist with a globalising (neo-liberal) program.”
By June 2011 the Red Shirts had succeeded in pushing for a new election, won by the Red Shirt-backed Pheu Thai party, led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra. Before the election, they promised to abolish 112. Somyot’s wife, Joop, who is a key figure in the Free Somyot campaign, thinks that the new government backed down due to pressure from elites linking the royals and the military. The government states it is a criminal issue, not a political issue.
October 14 marks the 40th anniversary of a student uprising in Thailand against the military junta that took power in 1963.
A demonstration in excess of 200,000 was taking place at the Democracy Monument in central Bangkok when the army moved in firing on students and a massacre ensued. To mark the 40th anniversary Somyot wrote from prison to his supporters calling for a “democracy of the people”.
Somyot continues to organise while incarcerated for the repeal of 112, freeing political prisoners and for improvements in prisoner conditions, including the removal of leg irons.
The campaign has received trade union support in Australia and elsewhere, including by some international union organisations, such as the IndustriALL Global Union.
The Victorian Trades Hall Council in Australia endorsed a resolution on 23 September 2013: “VTHC Executive Council supports the release from detention of Somyot Pruksakasemsuk. VTHC supports a workers right to organise and to speak out against injustice. The VTHC calls on the Government of Thailand to reform oppressive laws that prohibit labour activists from organising and campaigning for workers rights. The VTHC supports the release of labour activists who have been arrested for standing up with workers.”
The Australian workers’ rights organisation Australia Asia Worker Links has been campaigning for Somyot’s release and are hoping to soon host a visit by Thai labour activists.
Elsewhere, the campaign has been strongly supported by the Clean Clothes Campaign and other organisations opposing sweatshop labour. Amnesty International has declared Somyot a “Prisoner of Conscience”, and his case has been raised at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Labour Organisation by Joop on a recent trip to Geneva.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed her deep concern about the verdict and extremely harsh sentencing, “I am disturbed that Somyot has been denied bail and presented in court on several occasions wearing shackles – as if he were some kind of dangerous criminal. People exercising freedom of expression should not be punished in the first place”.
The campaign has received some mainstream labour movement support in the UK, but there is no main group organising around it.
After the verdict in January, TUC secretary Frances O’ Grady sent a letter to the Thai ambassador, and Kerry McCarthy asked questions in Parliament.
There is much more that unions in the UK can do to support Somyot. The key points to include in motions of support are to call for:
1. An amnesty to release from detention Somyot Pruksakasemsuk and all political prisoners.
2. Pending an amnesty, ensure that prisoners accused and being tried at the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court under Article 112 are granted bail without discrimination and with respect to basic human rights.
3. Abolition of Article 112: modify the Criminal Code and the 2007 Constitution to prevent discrimination and violation of the rights to bail.
4. A fact finding mission to Thailand by Global unions
• You can write to Somyot in prison, where he is prison librarian: Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, Bangkok Remand Prison, 33 Ngamwongwan Rd., Lay Yao, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900 Thailand. Email: email@example.com
Riki Lane, Maureen Murphy, and Lillian Murphy travelled to Thailand in August-September 2013 and visited Somyot in prison on two occasions and met with Thai activists. Maureen worked with Somyot in Thailand for two years in the mid 90s.
Riki Lane spoke to Somyot in the Bangkok Remand Prison in September 2013
S: Our magazine was not the Voice of Thaksin [as in Thaksin, the former prime minister] but Taksin, which means “south” or “oppressed”. After the 2006 coup, our group organised protests and initiated a united front alliance against dictatorship and for democracy. I was invited to be the editor of Taksin by its supporters.
Our union was one of the most active against Thaksin before the coup. However the military coup made things much worse. What happened was different to previous coups with the Red shirts versus Yellow shirts divide. Some NGOs were pro-Thaksin, while some unions supported the Yellow shirts, because Thaksin was a major capitalist.
We were the first labour movement group to organise for democratic demands, such as to bring back the previous constitution. There were many cases of labour movement activists being imprisoned under 112. So we proposed abolition of the law and launched a petition campaign to collect one million signatures to overturn the law. Five days later I was arrested by the military and sent to a special police wing.
RL: So was your approach similar to in Egypt, where to be against the dictatorship does not mean you have to be for the Muslim Brotherhood?
S: Yes, against the coup, but not for Thaksin.