Asia Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Media and Society in Asia and the Pacific

Archive for March, 2010

Letters Against Repression

Posted in Southeast Asia on March 18th, 2010

Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul, Lese Majeste, and Human Rights in Thailand

Since early 2006, the crisis which led to the 19 September coup in Thailand has emerged, grown, and morphed multiple times. The society has increasingly divided into two groups – yellow and red shirts, who roughly correspond to supporters of the monarchy and supporters of a more populist, and at times, republican, alternative.

Wherever one stands with respect to the yellow-red divide [which glosses the heterogeneity present in both groups], the most glaring results of the crisis have been the disappearance of any semblance of the rule of law, increased repression, and the curtailment of dissenting speech. In particular, those who criticize the monarchy have been targeted for repression from various security sectors.

One of those targeted was Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul, also known as ‘Da Torpedo.’ Darunee was charged with lese majeste (Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code) for comments she made during political rallies in support of ousted former PM Thaksin Shinawatra in June and July 2008. When she was sentenced in August 2009, the court decision included transcripts of her comments. She never mentions the monarchy or related institutions or individuals by name. However, as noted in the judgment, the court extrapolated the objects of her speech, as well as made conclusions about her intentions. On the basis of the court’s extrapolation and interpretation, she was sentenced to eighteen years in prison. [Thai and English copies of the court decision can be found here:]

While other people were sentenced for crimes of lese majeste in 2009, Darunee’s case is different for a number of reasons. First, her sentence is the longest, by far. Second, unlike others who have been recently charged, she did not confess to the crime. To be clear: she did not deny that she made the statements she allegedly made, but she did not confess to the crime of lese majeste. This means that under Thai law, she is not eligible for a royal pardon.

Reports indicate that Darunee is suffering in prison in a number of ways. Of primary concern, she has significant untreated dental problems. Earlier this year, the physician at the prison wrote a report explaining the seriousness of her condition and his inability to treat it with the facilities at the prison. Darunee’s family filed an appeal for temporary release for her to seek care at a specialized clinic outside the prison. The appeal was denied, on the basis of the alleged severity of her crimes, and the non-life-threatening nature of her dental problems. As anyone who has broken a tooth or needed a root canal knows, when one’s teeth hurt, one can think of little else.

For information on this aspect of her case, please see:

Searching for a way to support Darunee without also getting in trouble themselves, shortly after her sentencing, Social Move/สมมัชาสังคมก้าวหน้า, a group of activists in Bangkok organized a letter-writing campaign. They have asked people to write letters to her – not about politics [which could endanger Darunee as well as the letter writers] – but about their lives and other topics. Their point is to remind Darunee that she is not forgotten – and also to remind Thai society of Darunee. Social Move asks people to send the letters to them, and then they forward them on to Darunee.

In the months since they began the project, they have posted scans of the letters online to the progressive Thai news website Prachatai. Information about the letters [and scanned copies of many] is available here [in Thai]:  While Darunee and many of the authors of letters to her are members of the red movement, some are not.

For me, once she was arrested on the basis of her speech, how I personally felt about the content of her speech ceased to matter. Her arrest was unjust. This injustice was deepened once she was prosecuted and then denied basic medical treatment. Earlier this year, I wrote a letter to Darunee.

My letter, written on Olivia the Piglet stationary (see above) was mostly about the children’s story of Olivia the Piglet. The Olivia books are written and illustrated by Ian Falconer, and trace Olivia’s mischievousness. I told Darunee that I followed the news about her case, and that I hoped she was able to access medical treatment for her tooth soon. After I sent the letter to the activists organizing the letter-writing project, they wrote to me to tell me that letters could be accepted in Thai or in English, as Darunee can read both.

So, as the crisis in the streets of Thailand grows, write to Darunee. Tell her about your day, send a colorful postcard, and let her know that you are following her case. Remind her that she is not forgotten. Snail mail letters can be sent to the activists coordinating the letter project at the following address: PO. BOX 58 , P.N.S.(P.) Phrakhanong, Bangkok 10110 THAILAND Email letters can be sent to Remember that you can always write under your nom de plume or nom de guerre, if you are concerned about repercussions of sending her a letter. That this is a reasonable concern is an indication of the depth of the crisis in Thailand.

Tyrell Haberkorn Canberra, March 2010

Dr. Tyrell Haberkorn is a Research Fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, specialising in issues of human rights in Thailand.