Ah Kong and his family

On November 23, 2011, the criminal court in Bangkok found 61-year-old Mr. Amphon (last name withheld), known by his family as Ah Kong or granddad, guilty of lese majeste, and sentenced him to 20 years. Amphon was accused of sending SMS messages with offensive content about royalty to Abhisit Vejjajiva’s personal secretary. The Asian Human Rights Commission has expressed grave concern over this conviction: “Particularly given the weak nature of the evidence deployed against him, and the extenuating circumstances of health and age, this case indicates that the Thai judiciary has become a place where justice is foreclosed and injustice flourishes.” Amnesty International’s Benjamin Zawacki has also condemned the verdict, describing Amphon as “a political prisoner.”

The following profile of Ah Kong, and an account of what his family has gone through, is translated, with permission, from the website of the Ratsadornprasong Legal Institute, dedicated to fighting for justice for victims of impunity. The report is dated September 22, 2011 i.e. a few months before the sentence:

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Prior to his arrest, Ah Kong and his wife were living in a rented room, and relied on the small monthly contribution from their children to pay the rent of 1200 baht. The couple decided to live apart from their children in order not to burden them. They also look after several grandchildren who have been left in their care.

Pui, Ah Kong’s daughter, is a single mum with two children. Ever since Ah Kong’s arrest, Pui has had to take on the main responsibility of looking after her mum and helping the lawyers prepare for the court case. At the time of Ah Kong’s arrest, Pui was working 12-hour shifts in a factory near where she lived, earning the minimum wage rate. On one of the days when her dad had to go to court, Pui had to swap her shift in order to take him. On that day, dad and daughter waited from morning till dark to hear that his bail application had been denied.

Ah Kong was arrested on August 4, 2010, and held for two months in a special prison in Bangkok, until he was granted bail on that occasion. His wife and grandchildren told us they will never get over the shock of that day when nearly twenty police officers, accompanied by a large group of reporters, turned up to arrest Ah Kong, raiding their house.

“We were treated like criminals of the worst kind, as if we weren’t like other people. They came in and searched everything, took photos of everything, even our grandchildren. They scared the children, made them cry. It was really frightening. I don’t want it to happen again. Will it happen again?” Auntie Ou, Ah Kong’s wife, wanted reassurance.

Next day, after his arrest, the newspapers’ headlines claimed that Uncle Amphon or Ah Kong was a “hardcore red shirt.” Since then, the family has become very scared of reporters. They insist that Ah Kong is just an ordinary old man who spends his life looking after his grandchildren. He used to go to observe various political demonstrations, since he had a lot of free time during the day when the grandchildren were in school.

“When the yellow shirts were demonstrating he went to see them. When the king was first taken to Siriraj Hospital, he went to sign the get-well book they laid out. When the red shirts demonstrated he also went to have a look. But wherever he went, he would make sure that he came back in time to pick up our grandchildren from school,” Ah Kong’s wife told us.

Uncle Amphon denies all charges and insists that he didn’t send the SMS messages as accused. He says he doesn’t even know how to send text messages. His wife says he has always claimed his innocence.

Auntie Ou told us that the whole family has been through much suffering since Ah Kong’s arrest. They didn’t have the funds to hire lawyers to fight his case and they have been worried sick about him. Until they met a group of volunteer lawyers, they didn’t know what they needed to do after his arrest.

Even though [at the time of publishing this profile] the court hasn’t sentenced Ah Kong’s case, society usually immediately judges victims of the lese majeste charge as guilty. Auntie Ou and her grandchildren have had to move from their rented home, and are now staying with Pui in her small room. Even the youngest grandchildren have been verbally attacked. The couple’s youngest son had to resign from the factory he was working in because of his dad’s arrest. Their daughter gets called “hardcore daughter” in the factory she works in.

“There are people who understand our situation, but those who don’t can hurt us again and again. A case like this, even if you’re not guilty, even if you’re not jailed, society’s already condemned you,” Auntie Ou said.

She told us that she believes that her husband is innocent. But even if he did do what he had been accused of, the family shouldn’t have to bear the punishment.

“I worry most about my grandchildren. I don’t want them to suffer. We’re both old, and we won’t be around for much longer. I want my grandchildren to change their last name so they can have a new life. They won’t have to deal with the consequence of what happened to their grandfather.” Auntie Ou cried as she said this.

Ah Kong was initially jailed on pre-charge detention for two months then granted bail on October 4, 2010. Initially, the lower court had refused bail on the basis that his was a serious case, of grave public concern, and there was a risk of flight. After Ah Kong was granted bail in October he received treatment for laryngeal cancer.

On January 18, 2011, when Ah Kong was formally charged, his lawyer had to reapply for bail. As he waited for the court to consider the application, Ah Kong was put inside the cell in the courthouse, where he protested by refusing to eat. Auntie Ou, waiting outside the cell, also refused to eat. They waited for eight hours before learning that Ah Kong would once again be put in the special prison that he had recently left.

In prison, the person who has been taking good care of Ah Kong is Brother Num, or Thanthawut Taweeworadomkul, another victim of lese majeste who has a 10 year-old son waiting for him outside. Thanthawut has been getting out information about Ah Kong, and he has been making sure that Ah Kong’s relatives are aware of what he needs inside.

One of Ah Kong’s daughters wrote Thanthawut a letter, dated June 2, 2011, sharing with him what it has been like for the family since their dad was accused of lese majeste. In one part of this letter, addressed to “Brother Num” from Paew, she writes:

“.. You are a bedrock of support for both my dad and my whole family. We feel stronger after reading your letters because we know that we are not alone. There are many people in our situation, and they too are fighting for justice and freedom on behalf of the people who are going through what our dad has been through… Our family has never once thought that this kind of thing would happen to us, because this sort of case seems so irrelevant to our lives. As a Thai family we respect and worship the monarchy, and it saddens us that the institution is being used as a political tool without its awareness. This is upsetting for all Thais who love the institution above all else. We as a family have to fight the injustice that’s occurring in this country. Cases like this have become politicised and the scapegoats are the ordinary people, the small fries, like us…”

Ah Kong’s grandchildren miss him very much. Before, when the family was living together, each day Ah Kong would take each grandchild to school and say goodbye to them at the school gate in comical English, “I-Go.” The grandchildren told us that they could still hear his voice saying this, even if he is no longer able to take them to school.

The team of lawyers at Ratsadornprasong has had to witness many episodes of this family’s suffering. One day, Ah Kong’s grandchildren wrote him a letter to wish him happy 61st birthday. They missed him and wanted to write and tell him things to cheer him up. They wanted to buy him a birthday cake but couldn’t do so, because the prison wouldn’t allow it. Instead, they drew him a red birthday cake, and wrote on the card “I-Go.” Ah Kong cried as he read their letter.

Every time we go to the prison to visit political prisoners, as part of the campaign “red presents for red friends,” we would always see Ah Kong smiling at everyone who has come to show their support. Ah Kong isn’t a talkative man, he speaks softly. But every time he would smile and say thank you to everyone who has come to visit. He doesn’t say much and doesn’t make demands. His eyes are the eyes of a defeated man who has lost hope, but on his face is a smile to greet the visitors who have come to see him.

… These days Auntie Ou has to do all the housework and take all five grandchildren to and from school. Their daughter has already lost one job because she had to take time off work to visit her dad and to go to court to submit various bail applications. Auntie Ou survives on the 4500 baht given to her by two of her children each month. She has to feed the grandchildren on that amount, and she takes the bus to the prison to visit Ah Kong. On those visit days she would have to rush back to pick up the grandchildren. She told us she is exhausted and doesn’t understand why this has happened to her family.

A few months earlier, Ah Kong’s mother passed away aged 95, and, a month after that, Auntie Ou’s mother also passed away. Ah Kong cried because he couldn’t even attend his mother’s funeral and say goodbye. Previously, he was the person who took care of his mother, the person who fed her one spoon at a time.

Ah Kong is a quiet and sensitive man. One time, when his daughter told him about the king’s illness, how the king would gaze at the Chao Phraya River from his hospital compound, she saw that tears were streaming down Ah Kong’s face. Whenever he went to observe those various political demonstrations, he would always bring back home posters or images of the royal family that the vendors sold on the protest sites. Auntie Ou says she doesn’t understand why Ah Kong has been accused of this charge, and that she believes that he is innocent: “They’ve already killed a large part of me. They’re killing my family. Ah Kong should be here with me looking after our grandchildren. But, instead, what’s happening to him is vicious.”