Remembrances of Red Trauma (8) – Not all cages exist behind bars: A political prisoner’s life after release

By Hathairat Phaholtap / Photos by Adithep Chanthet

Evidence of the catastrophic flooding of August 2019 still scar the walls of Somsak Prasansap’s home in the Warin Chamrap district of Ubon Ratchathani province.

They are different to the scars on the mind of this ex-political prisoner that remain invisible to the eye. Yet there is one symptom which everyone can see. When getting up onto his feet, Somsak is unsteady. He needs a stick to help him walk. Somsak says that the pressure from the stress pinched the blood vessels in his brain, partially paralyzing him while he was in prison.

“My life just went downhill from the day I was sent to prison. In the first year, my mother died. The following year, my father died. The year after that, my son died, too. After I got out, my wife died,” Somsak says. “I haven’t got any land left. It all got sold or taken by the money lenders. I had to find a new place to live.”

Somsak’s new house, which barely survived the floods, is built on land that was chosen to be a basin for flood-defences by the authorities. But at least he has a title deed. He built the house after he lost his previous plot of land which his family had put up as collateral for legal fees.

Somsak Pransansap, former political prisoner from Ubon Ratchathani province, stands outside his flood-wrecked home with the help of his improvised walking stick.

Even though Somsak insists that his body is better now, the pain still shows in his eyes. When he talks about the things that happened after he became a political prisoner, the pain turns into tears.

“Oh! It was tough,” he manages to muster these simple words through the tears, while bowing his head to hide them.

Silence set in for about five minutes before Somsak resurfaced and started to talk about what happened after his arrest in 2010.

“That day [May 19, 2010], I heard that there was a UDD [United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship] rally at the provincial hall. I went to take a look, because I heard that people were getting injured. I would have gone in my Civil Defence Volunteer uniform but it was still hanging out to dry. When I got there, I started hauling the injured out of the ruckus outside the provincial hall. I got five or six of them out. Later on, the police used photos of me doing that to track me down and arrest me for getting involved in the arson.”

When Somsak was taken away by the authorities, his wife Patchari had to step up as the main breadwinner of the family. Added to that was the duty of shuttling back and forth between home, the police station, and the courthouse on her husband’s behalf.

“Losing him as the main breadwinner really made us go without. Before the court case, he was s a construction worker, which was steady work. When he went into jail, I sold fried bananas which was just about enough to feed my children. Some days I’d only have 20 baht left, so I’d have to walk home after going to visit him in prison,” Patchari told The Isaan Record in November 2019, two months before she died at the age of 60.

Somsak and his wife Patchari Laisua in November 2019 in their home in Ubon Ratchathani.

Release

On June 29, 2017 Somsak was released from the Ubon Ratchathani provincial prison, together with three fellow political prisoners. The court had originally sentenced him to 33 years and four months.

“On the day of my release, they just brought some papers for me to sign and told me to get in a van,” Somsak says. While in the van, we were trying to figure out where they were taking us. We all agreed that if they were taking us to be shot, we would fight to the death.”

But Somsak soon realized that no such thing was to occur when the van turned into a lot that was teeming with officials and soldiers, and their families.

“Stay away from politics. No visiting anyone else in prison. No travel abroad. No taking part in any political gatherings.” These were the terms that Somsak and his three prison mates signed agreement to prior to their release.

“They said we’ve brought him for you,” said Narisa Prasansap, his daughter. She and her mother were given no advance notice of his release.

“Nobody ever said anything about his release. Soldiers from ISOC [Internal Security Operations Command] came to our home. Then we saw our dad’s face. He was wearing shorts and a white shirt,” Nan says of the moment she saw him and ran to hug him for the first time in so many years.

DJ Toi’s life-sentence

The Prasansap family was not alone in facing hardship while their main breadwinner was imprisoned. The Thabuddha family suffered a similar fate. Their family was led and fed by a key player in the UDD’s Ubon Ratchathani branch.

“Ever since Toi was arrested, our two boys have suffered from not having a father. Even though they understand, it’s really affected the little one who is 15 years old,” Phasuk Thabuddha, 55, says of how the arrest of her husband Pichet Thabudddha–more widely known as DJ Toi–on political charges affected their family.

She herself lost her office job at Ubon Ratchathani’s city hall when the political pendulum swung the other way. The family finances dwindled. Even though DJ Toi’s status as one of the key organizers of the UDD in Ubon Ratchathani meant that his family was due some help from the UDD headquarters in Bangkok, the sheer number of UDD members being prosecuted eroded much of that support.

“After one year and five months in prison, the court of appeal released him from prison on bail. Toi got out and created a small business while we waited for the Supreme Court’s decision, which none of us expected. He got a life sentence and is still in prison today. I don’t know how to do the business that he created, so we have no income,” Phasuk says. She explains that “right now we get by with assistance from the Redfam Fund, which was set up to help the families of Red Shirts facing political prosecution.”

DJ Toi, was originally sentenced to death by the Supreme Court on December 15, 2015, after he was found guilty of terrorism, offences against national security and state officials, disturbing the peace, and conspiring to commit arson at the Ubon Ratchathani provincial hall on May 19, 2010. The court later commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.

“I never thought we would reach this point. I never thought it would be this bad,” Phasuk said about the fate of her husband, who is now in Khlongphai prison, Nakhon Ratchasima province.

Assistant Professor Saowanee T. Alexander of Ubon Ratchathani University is one of the co-founders of Redfam Fund, a fund to support the families of Red Shirt political prisoners.

The Redfam Fund

Sixty Ubon Ratchathani residents were arrested in the aftermath of May 19, 2010. Most were steadily acquitted until only 21 remained in the legal process. Today, four of them are still in prison; three males in Khlongphai prison, Nakhon Ratchasima province, and one female in Ubon Ratchathani prison. The families of all four have been receiving regular help from Redfam Fund since November 2011.

“The lives of their families were shattered from the day of their arrest,” says Saowanee T. Alexander, assistant professor at Ubon Ratchathani University. “From the very first second that they donned their prison uniforms, they assumed the appearance of the guilty, even before any sentence had been passed by a court of law.”

This is the reason that Saowanee decided to help set up the Redfam Fund. Saowanee, and many other academics from the university, as well as from other provinces, came together to help the families of red shirts facing politically motivated prosecutions.

At first, they set out to fundraise via social media to directly support the legal costs of the prisoners. Those inclined to do so could wire money straight into the bank accounts of their families. Later on, the donations were received and administered by the fund, which would pay out 2,000 baht per month to each family. The rest of the money was used for bail.

Scapegoated

While the families were grateful to receive help from the Redfam Fund, it was no doubt a gratitude tinged with bitter necessity.

“Going to prison affected everything. My family disappeared, as well as my freedom. I lost time,” Somsak reflects bitterly. “Those years of my life were put on hold, behind bars, for no good reason. I could have used that time to make a living, and improve the lot of my family. But no, it was thrown away into that prison. Nothing good came of it, and I’m just an ordinary villager. I’m not even a Red Shirt leader or anything.”

In a report published by The People’s Information Center (PIC) on the April-May 2010 crackdowns on the politically arrests of 2010, the following observation is made:

“The arrests were made according to warrants, but the issuance of the warrants themselves were not in accordance with the usual legal standards for evidence and probable cause. Warrants were issued for the arrest of people who were present and not present at the provincial halls. Most of the photographs presented as evidence for the issuance of the warrants were taken from too great a distance for certain identification of the subjects. In some photographs the lighting was too dark, or the subject not clear enough to be discerned. Some photographs clearly show someone throwing a rock at a guard box, yet some other photographs merely show bystanders from outside of the compound who do not display any signs of activity other than looking on.

Furthermore, warrants were issued for certain people using photographs that were not taken in 2010, yet these warrants were requested by police and issued on the basis that police had seen them at other political gatherings prior to 2010. No evidence of their presence at the provincial halls in 2010 was presented for the warrants of these particular arrests.”

It is hardly surprising that Somsak feels he was framed.

“I’ve learned many things over the past ten years,” he says. “I learned about the double standards in the judicial system. When I was in prison, I met people who hadn’t committed any crimes, together with people who really had committed crimes. There were plenty of people who were just framed. Like us, for example. I wasn’t guilty, but they made me guilty. They framed me. I was scapegoated. If I had money, I would never have gone to jail. But I was poor. No money to put up a legal fight, no fancy lawyers for us, only jail.”

These are the lessons of Somsak’s time as a political prisoner, the sentence for which he is in many ways still serving. 

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