Seven months ago twenty-six people were arrested in Khon Kaen and now face charges of terrorism and treason—offences that could exact the death penalty. The case, known as the “Khon Kaen Model,” is the most high-profile case to be tried in a military court since the junta took power in May. Kate Cowie-Haskell and Plia Xiong have been following the case in Khon Kaen to learn more about the process of military court and its consequences for families of the defendants. [Those interviewed for this story preferred that neither real names nor photographs be used, worried that it may affect the case of their family members.]
GUEST CONTRIBUTION by Kate Cowie-Haskell and Plia Xiong
Co-published on Prachatai English
It is past noon, but “Nok” is still in her pajamas. She stands in front of her open refrigerator, staring at its meager contents. The shelves have become bare as the months drag on and she is unable to search for a job. Finally, she removes two eggs and turns toward the cluttered kitchen. “I can’t go anywhere, so I can’t make any money,” she says as she cracks the eggs into a pan. “The soldiers watch me whenever I leave.”
It has been a month since Nok, still in her forties, was released on bail for medical reasons from the Khon Kaen Central Prison. There she was held for five months with the twenty-five other people accused of plotting the “Khon Kaen Model” of resistance, an alleged Red Shirt plan to overthrow the military government that came into power on the 22nd of May. The suspects were arrested in the days following the coup, and imprisoned on June 4th.
Nok was released from prison, but she has been unable to fall back into her role as the provider for the seven people in her family. Instead, she spent most of the last month under what is essentially house arrest. She doesn’t want to give the soldiers a reason to suspect she is organizing or attending meetings, so she limits contact with friends and never strays more than a few hundred meters from her house. Nok is even too afraid to find work, fearing that contact with anyone outside her family may incriminate her again. Her family’s financial situation has become dire since her arrest, and continues to deteriorate despite her release from prison.
“It has been a very hard time for our family,” admits Nok’s father, who has become increasingly immobile as muscular atrophy claims his body. He sits in the small makeshift bedroom that has become his world in the past few years. “I am becoming weaker, and I can’t support the family. We have many financial problems now. With three kids, school and meals cost a lot.”
Nok doesn’t know when she will be able to find a job. For now, she is paralyzed by the knowledge that the military can interpret anything she does as a reason to put her back in prison.
“We have no income, and I have to think about everything I do before I do it. Every decision I make can affect my family now, and I don’t want to make our situation worse.”
The Khon Kaen Model suspects and their families have been under the watchful eye of the military government since the arrests were made in May. All twenty-six suspects were accused of nine charges, including amassing arms and conspiracy to commit terrorism.
Order No. 37 of the junta, stipulating that offenses against the “internal security of the Kingdom” come under the jurisdiction of a military court, was issued days after defendants in the Khon Kaen Model case had already been apprehended. A lawyer familiar with the case called this arrangement “strange” and “against legal principles.” Regardless, the Khon Kaen Model case is being tried in military court.
A number of international human rights organizations have denounced civilians being tried by military court as a violation of human rights. In military court there are no appeals, and bail has so far been denied to the Khon Kaen Model suspects without preexisting medical conditions. All twenty-six suspects could face the death penalty.
The defense lawyers have repeatedly called for the case to be moved to a civilian criminal court on the grounds that a trial by military tribunal violates Article 4 of the junta’s 2014 interim constitution, which vaguely states that the new government will protect human rights.
According to Mr. Wilder Tayler, the Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists, “Under international standards, civilians should not be subject to the jurisdiction of military tribunals, particularly where, like in military-ruled Thailand, military tribunals lack the institutional independence from the executive required by international law regarding fair trials.”
The court proceedings of the Khon Kaen Model case have appalled the defendants and their lawyers. Since May the judges assigned to the case have already changed once, and two of the three current judges are military personnel with no professional background in law. The court has also been unclear about the dates of court appearances for the defendants, rescheduling hearings multiple times.
A legal expert familiar with the details of the case who asked to remain unnamed is frustrated with the lack of transparency in the court process. “I don’t know what principle the court is working from. Are they waiting for the political situation to get better? Or are they waiting for orders from higher powers? The more detailed of this case are revealed, this expert says, “the clearer it is that these families can’t get justice.”
The high-profile nature of the case, particularly the terrorism charges, has garnered a lot of attention for the accused and their families. The media has painted the families as treasonous and violent. As a result, they have been ostracized in their communities.
“Dao” has been socially isolated since her husband’s arrest. She sits at a table in her sparsely furnished home, which for her has become unbearably empty.
“Nobody comes to visit my family. They see us as criminals and they think we are trying to ruin the country,” Dao says through tears. “I am a Red Shirt but I have no war weapons— I don’t even know what they look like.”
Before the arrest, Dao and her husband sold sausages, making around 1,000 baht per day. But suddenly, after the arrests she could only make 200 baht per day. Now her most eager customers are the dogs she gives her leftovers to at the end of the night.
“My neighbors used to come buy sausages from me, but now they don’t even come near me. I ask them why, and they just say they don’t want to eat sausages anymore.”
Dao mentions that some of her old friends received phone calls from a person who warned them to avoid interacting with her. She does not know who these calls were from.
Unable to handle the way people stare at her (or worse, ignore her) in the street, Dao locks herself in her home. Now, her only comfort lies in the fifteen-minute visits she has with her husband at prison. She goes whenever she can afford the bus fare. Desperate for fast cash she skips meals and sells her motorcycles, sewing machines, rice steamers—anything she can find—at the scrap dealer for a fifth of their price. She often stays at the jail long after morning visitation hours are over, sitting alone in the darkening waiting room until she is asked to return to her empty home.
In the few months after the arrest Dao’s 18-year-old daughter, “Noi,” was her mother’s sole companion and only source of income. An accomplished boxer, Noi made around 5,000 baht for each of her fights in a boxing ring in Khon Kaen. Without her father to drive her, Noi took public transport to the ring every week with her mother. When the fights ended too late for the women to catch a bus home the two slept on the bare mats at the ring, using their bags as pillows. But soon after the arrests the ring manager heard about Noi’s situation and started putting her in lower fight levels, where she could only make 300 baht per fight.
Disgusted with this treatment and fed up with the teasing she endured at school, Noi dropped out of eleventh grade. She left her mother and moved to a province in another region, where she is able to conceal her connection to the Khon Kaen Model. Now she boxes during the week and takes adult education classes on the weekend, sending money to her mother when she can.
“Aom,” 17, is also sacrificing her education because of the Khon Kaen Model case. Her father was one of the twenty-six people arrested in May, and as each day passes without his income her family faces greater losses.
In the dark kitchen of her family’s cement home Aom chops up vegetables for the evening meal. Out of the corner of her eye she sees her backpack slouching against the dirty wall, with unfinished readings and assignments threatening to spill out of it. She hasn’t picked it up since the last time she went to school four days ago. Tonight though, she knows she will have to tackle some of the assignments that have been building up on her since the semester began in November.
Aom’s school fees have become an unbearable strain. The weekly 100 baht that Aom needs for transportation to school is now required for basic necessities for herself, her four-year old brother, and her mother. Recently Aom’s mother, Mai, has become so desperate for money that she asked her daughter to drop out of school and find work.
It has been a tense topic for the mother and daughter recently, as Aom insists that she should stay in school for one more year so she can graduate. For now, the family has reached a fragile compromise: Aom will go to school only two or three days a week.
“No mother wants her child to leave school,” Mai says as she watches her daughter sweep the oil-stained floor of their kitchen. “I want her to have the highest education possible so she can get a good job and have a future. But I don’t know where to get money—if my husband was here we could work this out together.”
Over the last semester and a half, school has become a battleground. Aom is failing most of her classes. Already her poor attendance has barred her from taking the final exams for half of her classes this semester. She will have to make up the assignments next semester, on top of her new schoolwork.
“I don’t know if I will be able to do it,” Aom confides. “But I want to graduate high school so I can get a good job.”
She has dreams of studying hotel management at Khon Kaen University, the leading university in the Northeast. Her sociable personality would serve her well, and she is intrigued by the glamour of it all. “I want to look fancy,” she laughs.
However, her dreams are quickly moving beyond her reach. She has a commitment to support her family, and her mother’s emotional instability since the arrests has only made it more necessary to shoulder some of the caretaking burden left behind by her father.
Mai tries to put on a brave face and smile for her two children, but the sorrow that lies just beneath the surface is sometimes unmanageable. “After the arrest I cried for weeks,” she admits quietly. “I was devastated, I didn’t know what to do with my life. My daughter saw this and stopped going to school for two weeks to keep me company.”
With her future on the line, Aom must now try to balance the financial distress caused by the case and her family’s emotional upheaval, even while coping with her own sense of loss.
“I miss my father,” she says. “When I think about him I want to cry.”
Seven months after the arrests it is clear that the acute emotional loss the Khon Kaen Model families feel has cut far deeper than their financial losses. Without the presence of their loved ones, they are suspended in a kind of mourning— indefinitely. The convoluted processes of the military court give families little hope that their suffering will end in the near future.
Since the arrests few questions have been answered for the affected families. They have asked to see the evidence against their loved ones, they have asked for bail, for release dates, for the dates of court hearings. And they have asked, again and again: What have we done to justify such grave punishment?
A lawyer in the case fears for the future of his defendants’ families. “Not knowing the next date and knowing that the court refuses to give bail has impacted families a lot. They are in limbo—they don’t know when they will be together again.”
Like Aom’s mother, the members of the “Damrong” family have been paralyzed by grief since the arrest of “Somsak”: their husband, father, and grandfather.
“Joy” has been married to Somsak for 36 years, and his arrest has taken a steep emotional toll on her. As she walks across the rutted yard in front of the family home, she pauses. “Everything reminds me of him,” she says solemnly. She looks to the front of the small house, where a vegetable garden stubbornly persists amidst riotous vines. “He loves planting,” she says, her voice choked. “He made that vegetable garden, and he built this house and dug out the fish pond. Anywhere you look you have to think about him.”
His absence is a void that his loved ones cannot ignore. Friends come to join family dinners, but everyone has become so accustomed to the rhythm of life with Somsak that they are at a loss when there are pauses in the conversation that his jokes normally fill.
“It is like there is no happiness in the family,” says Joy. “I have no energy, and all I can think about is how to help him.”
Since May the family has thrown itself into efforts to bail him out. They raised money and scoured documents, but the military has denied bail. Seven months later, Somsak is still in jail, and his wife still doesn’t know why.
“If we knew he was guilty it would be different because there would be a reason for him to be there. But I can’t think of anything he did wrong.”
Her claims match those of the defendants, all of whom have claimed innocence to the accusations. But despite what a lawyer described as “weak” evidence against them, the trial persists.
The only thing Joy is absolutely sure of is that her husband should have been released long ago. “All we want is for him to be back with us. If there was justice he would be home by now.”
Justice, it seems, is not something the Khon Kaen Model families will see soon. At the third case hearing on November 26th the court was as vague as ever, once again cancelling the next court appearance and failing to provide a new date. The lawyers’ request to move the case to a civilian criminal court remains under deliberation.
Meanwhile, these families must continue their battle with the uncertainty that is consuming their lives. The unanswered questions loom over them, and the unbelievable power the military holds over their situation permeates their daily life.
* * *
Dusk is just settling over Nok’s small home when she climbs on her motorcycle to buy vegetables down the road. As the motorcycle pulls away Nok’s brother rises and makes his way to the end of the dusty driveway, where he stares after the vanishing taillights. He stands there in the dark, headlights occasionally illuminating his concerned face, until his sister returns fifteen minutes later.
“He thinks that if I leave I might not come home again,” explains Nok. “Every time he returns home, he checks up on me and he is happy to see that I am still here.”
She drops the bag of vegetables on the table and sags against the wall of her home, the home that has become her prison.