Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, a long time left-wing union and democracy activist in Thailand, has been in jail since April 30, 2011. He faces a further 10 years jail under the repressive lese majeste (insulting the monarch) law.
Somyot became active in the democracy movement as a high school student in the 1970s. In the '80s, he became a key figure in building genuine, democratic unionism.
Somyot is the founder of the Centre for Labour Information Service and Training (CLIST), which led high-profile campaigns in the '90s for worker rights, particularly among women workers in the textile and garment industry.
He became renown for his commitment to international solidarity. Through CLIST, Somyot played a key role in building regional cooperation among workers' groups across Asia.
Activist and journalist
Somyot is chair of the Union of Democratic Labour Alliance, former Thai coordinator of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions and a leader of June 24th democracy group formed after the military coup in September 2006.
The 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 while overseas.
Since the coup, Somyot had been a leading pro-democracy activist in the anti-coup “Red Shirt” movement. He has concentrated on journalistic activities and since 2007 has edited the magazine Voice of Taksin.
The magazine was banned in 2010 and replaced by Red Power magazine. The case against him centres on two articles Red Power published in 2010 that made negative references to the monarchy.
Somyot was arrested in April 2011 days after launching a petition for a parliamentary review of Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, known as the lese majeste 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 15 years.”
On January 23, Somyot was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in jail.
The law is widely criticised for being used by authorities to suppress free speech and silence political opposition. Hundreds of activists have been charged under the law since 2006. People charged under it have routinely been denied bail ― 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 several high profile cases under Article 112. His sentence was three years and four months.
The Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt movements arose after the 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 among 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 they had elected a government that brought significant change. This created much greater engagement with politics.
“The labour movement split between Red and Yellow shirts. For example, state enterprise 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 [neoliberal] globalising program.”
By June 2011, the Red Shirts had succeeded in pushing for a new election. The vote was won by the Red Shirt-backed Pheu Thai Party (PTP), led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Before the vote, PTP promised to abolish Article 112. Somyot’s wife, Joop, a key figure in the Free Somyot campaign, thinks the new government backed down due to pressure from elites with military and royal ties. The government says it is a criminal issue, rather than a political one.
From jail, Somyot continues to organise for the repeal of Article 112, freeing political prisoners and improvements in prisoner conditions, including the removal of leg irons.
Speaking to Somyot from jail in September, he explained the magazine he edited had been called the Voice of Taksin, rather than “Thaskin”, given Thaksin is a major capitalist.
Somyot said “Taskin” meant “south” or “oppressed”. He told us: “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 1 million signatures to overturn the law. Five days later I was arrested by the military and sent to a special police wing.”
Asked whether the situation was similar to Egypt, where to be against the dictatorship did not mean supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Somyot said: “Yes, against the coup, but not for Thaksin”.
Campaign for Somyot
The campaign to free Somyot has received trade union support in Australia and elsewhere, including by some international union groups, such as the IndustriALL Global Union.
The worker rights' organisation Australia Asia Worker Links has campaigned for Somyot’s release and led efforts for the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) to pass a motion in support of Somyot on September 23.
The VTHC also voted to send a trade union delegation to visit Somyot in jail in Bangkok. Both resolutions later received ACTU support.
Elsewhere, the campaign has been supported by the European-based Clean Clothes Campaign and other groups opposing sweatshop labour.
Amnesty International has declared Somyot a “prisoner of conscience”. His case was raised by Joop at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Labour Organisation in Geneva.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed her deep concern about his case: “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.”
There is much more that unions can do to support Somyot. The key points to include in motions of support are for:
1. An amnesty to release Somyot and all political prisoners from detention.
2. Abolition of Article 112: the Criminal Code and the 2007 Constitution should be modified to prevent discrimination and violation of the rights to bail.
3. A fact finding mission by global unions should visit Thailand.
You can write to Somyot in jail, where he is prison librarian: Bangkok Remand Prison, 33 Ngamwongwan Rd, Lay Yao, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contacts for the campaign
[Maureen Murphy and Riki Lane travelled to Thailand in August and September. A version of this article was first published in the British publication Solidarity on October 25.]