As he shuffled into the court room in central Thailand wearing leg chains that dragged across the wooden floor I saw the same warmth in the greeting that I had seen 30 years ago. This was Somyot Pruksakasemsuk who was the first Thai person I ever met – at that time he had been organising Thai factory workers near Bangkok and I was arriving for a meeting of workers from throughout the Asia region.
On January 16 this year Somyot was attending his one day a month trial facing a charge of lese majeste. Lese majeste is a serious crime in Thailand – an allegation of criticising the monachy has been made against Somyot. Information about Somyot’s case and the international campaign to seek his release can be found on websites including http://freesomyot.wordpress.com (The Librarian of Bangkok Prison)
Somyot’s January trial day was in Nakorn Sawan province. His November 2011 trial day was in Petchaboon in North East Thailand. His February 2012 trial day is set down for Songkla in the far south of Thailand. His April appearance is set down for Bangkok where his case is based.
Whenever I had met Somyot on subsequent visits to Thailand he has always been a good friend to me. Knowing that I was a factory worker myself (and later a postal worker) he had taken me to meet Thai factory workers and been my guide and translator. He would take me out to eat, made sure I had suitable accommodation, and encouraged me to help Thai workers learn some basic English.
Somyot also took me to a workers’ centre where I was invited to plant what is still known eight years later as “The New Zealand tree”. I will be visiting the centre again on this visit – I have been told to expect to see an impressive and large tree.
Somyot visited New Zealand in 1994 with a young woman factory worker who had survived the Kader Toy Factory fire in which 188 mainly women factory workers had died. The young woman told us through Somyot’s translation that before she jumped four floors to the concrete below she thought about her friends in the factory, she thought about her mother, and she thought about the Budda. Then she jumped. She survived only because she landed on the bodies of the other young women who had jumped before her.
On this visit to Thailand it was my turn - and I felt my duty - to be a friend to Somyot.
At the end of the morning’s very short hearing Somyot was able to greet and talk with his wife and his friends and supporters who had filled the small courtroom to overflowing. One of his supporters gave him her mobile phone lanyard to allow him to hold his chains off the floor without having them drag behind him as he walked.
Somyot has no chance of bail and faces a 15 to 30 year jail sentence if a guilty verdict is returned.
During the hearing and an appeal from his lawyer to have his case transferred back to Bangkok Somyot explained to the judge that he was being moved from jail to jail for one day hearings in different provinces and even the prison administration said he was the only prisoner being moved in such a way. His lawyer said that in his 20 year’s experience he had never known a prisoner to be moved around provincial jails as in Somyot’s case.
I travelled to Somyot’s court hearing to show my support for a longtime and loyal friend whose friendship, support, guidance and commitment to social justice has made my life richer.
I also took some smalI gifts for Somyot which I gave to his wife, including some Whittakers chocolate peanut bars from New Zealand which I always fill my baggage with and which are very popular with my friends in Thailand. It was my turn to offer friendship and support to Somyot.
John Maynard - President of Postal Workers Union in New Zealand