TYRELL HABERKORN writes about her latest academic project; a play she has written about three women who spoke truth to power and paid the ultimate price.
Three women, three continents, three foreclosures of justice.
Ethel Rosenberg was convicted of alleged conspiracy to sell atomic secrets to the Soviet Union and commit espionage against the United States on 5 April 1951. She was executed on 19 June 1953, despite her claim of innocence and the US federal government’s secret knowledge that this claim was true. Ruth First was detained in 1963 for 117 days under the 90-Day Detention Law in South Africa, which permitted the arbitrary, potentially infinite detention of anyone who had committed, or might commit, an act deemed to be dangerous to the state. She was killed in exile in Mozambique on 17 August 1982, when she opened a letter bomb prepared and sent to her by the South African Security Branch Police. Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul was convicted of allegedly defaming the Thai monarchy on 28 August 2009 and is currently serving a 15-year sentence. She pled innocent; claiming that although she uttered the words cited in the accusation, this did not mean that she was disloyal to the monarchy.
Sisters in Sedition is a dramatic response to the lives, and in the case of Ethel Rosenberg and Ruth First, deaths, of these three women. In a series of three acts, the play moves backward in time, from 21st century Thailand to South Africa in the 1960s and finally to the United States in the 1950s. Despite being convicted or detained under very different laws, these three women were all accused of disloyalty to the nation, or sedition. Implicit in these charges were also accusations of defying gendered norms of propriety. By imagining an interweaving of their lives, this play unfurls a history of repression and the daring to confront injustice across time and space. In one sense, the play is a form of comparative historical and political analysis in which Ethel Rosenberg, Ruth First, and Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul face each other’s suffering, and in so doing, perform a solidarity designed to challenge the repressive forces and ideas which landed each of them behind bars. As witnesses to their encounter, readers are invited to consider the constriction of liberty during national crises, the limits of justice in the hands of the state, and the urgency of freedom.
But, Sisters in Sedition is a work of fiction. While it is based on extensive research, the only words actually uttered by the three women prior to this play are from US and Thai court documents (Ethel Rosenberg and Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul) and records of the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid (Ruth First). Ethel Rosenberg, Ruth First, and Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul have never met. Even if Ethel had not been executed before Daranee was born, and Ruth had not been assassinated before Daranee was arrested, they likely would not have met in the normal course of affairs. In Sisters in Sedition, each woman remains roughly the age she was when she was in prison, despite the movement backwards from the present to the 1950s. They visit one another in prison, even though there is no easily feasible way in which people from outside prison can sneak inside, let alone sneak into prison across time and space.
Ruth First was a committed Communist, Ethel Rosenberg may have been a Communist, and Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul entered politics after the end of the Cold War. What they share, across decades and partisan differences, is a commitment to a radical democracy in which all have access to justice and equality. As their lives demonstrate, for the state authorities in the United States, South Africa, and Thailand, this commitment is a challenge that must not be allowed to rise. Ethel Rosenberg and Ruth First did not speak Thai, and English is a second language for Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul. This is immaterial, however. The lingua franca they share and speak in Sisters of Sedition is defiance.
What is not a fiction is the violence, both legal and extrajudicial, experienced by these three women. What is not a fiction is Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, the law under which Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul was prosecuted and imprisoned, and which remains in force in Thailand today. Article 112 reads, in full: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished (with) imprisonment of three to 15 years.” This is in contrast to ordinary defamation law in Thailand, which sets a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment per count. The crimes codified in Article 112 are classed as crimes against national security, which forms the justification for the much harsher penalty. Any citizen can file a complaint of a violation of the law, and the police are compelled to investigate. While Article 112 has been law since 1957, its use has grown exponentially since the 19 September 2006 coup.
The 2007 arrest and 2008 prosecution of Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul is one of the cases which heralded the sharp increase. To illustrate this crisis, the number of complaints filed under Article 112 was 33 in 2005, dipped to 30 in 2006, rose again to 126 in 2007, dipped again to 77 in 2008, rose to 164 in 2009, and leapt to 478 in 2010. The judiciary is notoriously secretive about the progress of the cases, so the number of these complaints which were sent by the police to the prosecutor, and then how many were prosecuted and with what outcome is not known.
Further constricting the circulation of information about Article 112 and the fate of individuals charged with violations of it, to repeat or distribute an utterance, writing, image, or video deemed to violate the law is a violation equal to the original. This has both practical and political ramifications for Sisters in Sedition. The comments made by Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul in regards to the charges alleged against her are drawn from the court judgment in her case, which was published in both the original Thai and in English translation by Same Sky magazine (วารสารฟ้าเดียวกัน). In basing her comments about her own case on this, my explicit intention is to write about Daranee’s case without further implicating her. The comments and questions raised by Ethel Rosenberg and Ruth First present a different risk. Were they to have asked the questions they raise in this play during a political rally, it is conceivable that they, too, might be charged with violating Article 112.
Yet, here they ask these questions in a play,a form which exists in the space between literature and academic inquiry, a space of critical discussion largely protected up to the present. While Ethel and Ruth’s questions and comments are those which they would feasibly ask, given their documented political beliefs, Sisters in Sedition is a work of fiction. The opinions contained in this play are mine alone, and do not constitute approval or assent by Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, Ruth First, Ethel Rosenberg, or their relatives. The crime, if there is one, is my responsibility alone.
Dr Tyrell Haberkorn is a research fellow at the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Her play,Sisters in Sedition, was drafted in Germany earlier this year during her time as the 2012 Albert Einstein Fellow. The draft play has been presented at this week’s Research School of Asia and the Pacific symposium ‘Re-experiencing Asia and the Pacific’.