Somsak: “what I’m facing is scary”

Dr. Somsak Jeamteerasakul, associate professor at Thammasat University’s Department of History, is counting days.

“Since April 10, it’s been eleven – no, more – fourteen days,” he tells me. Fourteen days since the Thai military began, he writes, “giving interviews and loudly demonstrating its might on a daily basis.” Seventeen days have passed since the Thai Military’s “Commander in Chief attacked a ‘mentally ill academic’ who is ‘intent on overthrowing the institution’”.

Upon hearing this, he says, he knew it, immediately. “Though it was not named, it must be me. I am the only one on the academic board who works on Facebook, works on websites, speaks openly about these things.”

Within days, he says, the first in a series of ‘unusual occurrences’ began taking place. First, a number of suspicious individuals were spotted on motorbikes, surveying and loitering about his property. Anonymous phone calls were received: his wife took many of them. Then, early last week, “a caller claimed that a certain security department has ordered a large number of its officials to closely monitor my movements round the clock and to be ready to arrest me immediately upon receiving the order.”

Just how many days until his arrest takes place, however, remains to be seen. “At the moment, it’s kind of unofficial,” he tells me. “Even the arrest warrant has been confirmed by some high-placed government officials. But they haven’t acted upon it officially, but I’m quite sure. I’ve been told by high-placed government sources that there is already a warrant for my arrest.”

As a noted academic and historian whose specialization pertains to the ever-sensitive questions of the Thai monarchy as a political institution, Somsak has, in the past, faced any number of threats. Usually, these are received via Facebook and online forums, to which he is a keen and observant contributor. “I just don’t reply to them,” he says. But threats like these? “Never, at this level. I have written about the monarchy for about ten years or so now… The atmosphere at the moment has changed. For ten days straight, they (have) come out and talked about this anti-monarchy element in Thai society. It is very threatening.”

Somsak believes he will be charged under Thailand’s draconian lese-majeste laws. Under the Thai Criminal Code, article 112 states that “whoever defames, insults, or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”

In a recent press statement, Somsak suggests that his presentation of an eight-point proposal for reform of the monarchy early last year may well have sparked the interest of authorities. So too, a controversial talk he gave on December 10, 2010, on the subject. “The talk I gave… and any statement or writing I have produced since then, have all been within the framework of these eight concrete, legally justifiable proposals concerning reforming the monarchy.”

Despite this, however, “I am so surprised… Since I have never talked about overthrowing the system; only changing the system to reflect a changing world. Open discourse about the role of the monarchy is necessary… We should have a debate on the role of the monarchy, using reason and evidence… To royalists, I ask: “What will you do with the millions of different views?”

“There are those who want to maintain the status quo, although the reality is something different.”

Somsak himself has closely followed the recent spate of lèse majesté arrests, and remains concerned that the law is increasingly being used to satisfy arbitrary political ends. In a rather prescient comment last year on New Mandala, he wrote:

If I, or better still, my organization, do something, from my and fellow members of the organization making speeches to all kinds of activities, and people cannot say anything critical of what we do, least they would be put in jail for a long time. What should this be called? Is this not power? It is, definitely. Does any of the organizations and/or structures that make up the current Thai state have this same kind of power (as the monarchy)? No, nothing comes even close.

A growing number of academics and journalists have in recent days signed an open letter calling on the state to “immediately end the threats against Dr. Somsak and an end to the broader practices of constriction of speech.” Counting this case amongst those of “Dr. Suthachai, Mr. Giles, Ms. Chiranuch… as well as countless ordinary citizens,” they argue that this case will be seen as “symptomatic of a broader set of practices which gravely threaten the exercise of rights and the future of democracy in Thailand.”

“Those in power must realize that discussion and criticism – not blind loyalty – are necessary in a functioning democracy,” they write.

When asked, as a historian, what he feels will be remembered in decades to come of this period of Thai history, Somsak says: “I always think about this kind of question, myself. This is not my original idea, but I think it will be looked back as a transition period. A period where people try to, the country as a whole, cope with the changes, all the changes in the economy, in politics.

There has never (before) been a political movement with mass support, like we have witnessed in the case of Mr. Thaksin, for instance.

Even the monarchy itself, which in the past had been a sacred institution, that people looked at as something remote. But in the past few years, it has become a kind of ‘mass monarchy’. There is a feeling amongst the educated middle-class that they are very close to the monarchy. For the first time the monarchy also witnessed a kind of spontaneous mass support…

All the events that happened in Thailand in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s have kind of come together, in a big conflict. It is a conflict between power – the power of the monarchy, which is based on tradition – and the power of the political parties.

Both have mass support. People genuinely believe in the institution of the monarchy. People genuinely believe in their political leaders. And the problem is we haven’t found a way to arrange or manage all these changes, so all the conflict… is a reflection of our inability in Thai society to cope with all these problems.”

What comes next, remains to be seen. “I’ve had discussions with my friends, if they will kill me,” he said. “I am not Superman.  I ask myself if it’s worth it, since I’m not so brave. What I’m facing is scary,” he says. “It’s good my mother still doesn’t know about it.”

About Lisa Gardner, Guest Contributor