Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn.
Translator’s introduction: On 23 November 2011, Amphon Tangnoppakul, age 61, was sentenced to twenty years in prison under Article 112 and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act for allegedly sending four SMS messages with anti-monarchy content. On 8 May 2012, due to complications from metastatic cancer and in the context of a failing prison healthcare system, he died at age 62 behind bars.
Amphon Tangnoppakul was also known by the nickname “Ah Kong SMS,” and often simply “Ah Kong,” which means grandfather in Teochiu. Shortly after his case began, Amphon gained this nickname due to his age and his clear and public love for his grandchildren. His death while in prison prompted public outrage about the logic of harsh sentences for alleged crimes of lèse majesté and concern about whether or not the conditions of prison healthcare met minimum international standards. A formal inquest into his death concluded in October 2013 and noted that although he died while in prison custody, no one was at fault for his death.
While Ah Kong was in prison, he was cared for by his friend Noom Rednon (Thantawut Taweewarodomkul), another person then serving a sentence under Article 112 and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. Shortly after his death, Thantawut wrote an account of the last few days of his life and outlined the series of injustices experienced by Ah Kong. On 8 May 2014, the two-year anniversary of his death passed, and Noom, who has been pardoned and is now living outside prison, has written another piece of this account. What is important about this account, as well as Noom’s other writing about his time in the Bangkok Remand Prison, is both that it is a form of witness to repression inside the prison and also that he illuminates basic details of life behind bars in Thailand. This includes both the enormous amount of power wielded by the warden in a given zone of the prison, and also the ways in which generosity and care among prisoners stands as a sharp challenge to the broader injustice of the system which places them behind bars. Noom’s account recalls this injustice, which is made more, not less, acute by the passage of time since Ah Kong’s death.
Activists wearing the "Ah Kong SMS" masks during a campgin against Article 112 (Filed photo)
“If I had known that Ah Kong was going to die so swiftly, then perhaps I would have looked after him better.” I still remember saying these words to Anon Numpa, our lawyer, and Pla from Prachatai not long after Ah Kong breathed his last breath and departed this world. There will be no day of forgetting for me.
In August 2010, while the dispersal of the red shirt demonstrations still smoldered, I was moved to Zone 8 of the Bangkok Remand Prison. The zone of hell. The zone in which no one wants to set foot. I was “welcomed” with physical assault. During this time, the “toppling the monarchy map
” had fomented a trend of disregard for defendants in Article 112 cases. “Mii Suriyan
,” one of my friends, faced the same fate as I, but was even more severely attacked. The attacks were witnessed and carried out with the complicity of the warden of Zone 8, who was open in his support of the side that opposed the red shirts. These are the circumstances in which nearly all of the lèse majesté defendants like us, for whom being in prison meant that we were there to be tread upon, were placed on a platter for the warden of Zone 8.
At that time, I thought that it was unlikely that any further lèse majesté defendants would come into the zone. My sense was that news that Mii and I were assaulted in prison had gone far and wide and created hardship for the prison. The warden would have to reduce his venom and cease his revenge upon those of us who remained “defendants.” Under the law, we were still considered “innocent.”
A new arrival in Zone 8
And then, one morning that month, information spread that a new lèse majesté detainee had arrived. I was excited, and could not delay going to meet this person immediately. What I worried about the most was whether or not he would be assaulted in the manner that I was assaulted.
And then an elderly, white-haired, slight and slender old man appeared in front of my face. In my heart, I wondered, is this him? This is the defendant in a famous case carried in the pages of the newspaper? This is “Ah Kong SMS”?
Many prisoners gathered together to gossip with interest about this new lèse majesté case arrival. As he reported himself at entry door to Zone 8, insulting and obscene words slipped in abundance from the mouth of the yellow shirt warden. He walked and stopped in front of the elderly man, who kneeled on the ground with his hands pressed together in a wai at his forehead. There were tears in the elderly man’s eyes and his face was ashen with fear.
“You don't love the king, right? Why are you people so wicked? Don’t you know, don’t you how much we are indebted to the king? You are truly wicked. People like you, people who burn down the land. Bla bla bla …” It was a complete repeat of the condemnation heaped on me. Ah Kong’s experience was no different.
It was Ah Kong’s good luck that he was not assaulted like us. They saw that he was an old man. Prisoners are people, so to speak. They have a heart and soul and possess compassion. It would not be incorrect to say that there are ethics of being a prisoner. If Ah Kong was still a young man, like me or Mii, then he would definitely not be spared a welcome.
“Go along with them already. Those, those who defame [the king], prepare yourselves. You are in this zone. Do not place any hope in rising up.” My beloved warden pointed his finger at me, where I stood at a distance.
Mii and I walked over to help Ah Kong. We carried the things he had brought with him. I recall that he had a bag of Mama noodles, Singapore cookies, and 2 crumpled sets of pants and shirts. He also had a pale blue sleeping mat and an old, smelly pillow given to him when he was in Zone 1 to bring with him to use here.
Ah Kong was still in shock. His eyes were red as if he had been crying. I comforted him and said, you do not have to be afraid, I am also facing a lèse majesté case. We will help you and take care of you. Ah Kong opened his mouth and cried, and raised his hands in a wai. Much of what he then said I cannot recall. But what I remember precisely is that he said, “I did not do it, you know, I did not do it, I truly did not do it.”
I think it was good that Ah Kong was in the same zone with me. In fact, even though at that time, we were not [prison] bosses, it did not matter. We had been in that zone long enough that people knew us. We knew the ways in which the wind blew. Therefore, with us as his caretakers, Ah Kong experienced greater ease than others.
In the evening of that first day, Ah Kong was assigned to sleep in Cell 10. This was a room for prisoners with harsh sentences and it had a CCTV camera that was on at all times. I myself had slept in this room. But then I was moved to Cell 2, a room on the other side that also had a camera in it. At that time, there were 32 sleeping cells in Zone 8 and only 3 had surveillance cameras. Those who were in Cells 1, 2, and 10, the cells with the cameras, could be regarded as out of the ordinary. All of us who were there for lèse majesté cases were given this honor without having to request it.
I took Ah Kong to the head of Cell 10 who had looked after me once before. I asked him to help facilitate things for Ah Kong. This head of this cell was one of the big prison bosses (not simply a boss in Zone 8). He was a defendant in a famous case and was a former policeman who had been at the level of “captain.” Everyone in the prison called him “Captain Nat.”
The insatiable need to mistreat of defendants in lèse majesté cases
The morning of the next day arrived. All new prisoners must go find out his assigned work unit on his first morning in prison. It was no different for Ah Kong. There were many different work units in Zone 8. For example, the paper cup-making unit, the shoe-sewing unit, the woodworking unit, and various different service units. Typically, elderly people were selected to do light work such as picking up leaves and cleaning different areas. But in the Ah Kong’s case … it was not like this.
This is because the Zone 8 warden gave an order for Ah Kong to be assigned to the paper cup-making unit. I myself had been in this unit. Normally, teenage prisoners staffed this unit because each day had a high volume of work. The work was hard and inappropriate for an elderly person. Therefore, as soon as Ah Kong was shoved into this unit, everyone knew immediately that he must be really bad.
“Give him the full amount. If does not finish making the cups, then there is no need for him to eat. Those who insult the king must be treated like this.” The Zone 8 warden gave explicit instructions to his lackeys among the prisoners who watched over the paper cup-making unit. He ordered Ah Kong to sit in front of the Buddha statue. This was where those who were denounced and prisoners who had committed wrongdoing were sent. People walked back and forth in front of this area and could see everything, and so prisoners were sent to sit there to be shamed. When I first arrived, I was also targeted and sent to sit there as well.
The warden stood and watched with pleasure to ensure that Ah Kong made the cups himself. Tens of other prisoners surrounded Ah Kong as he tried to make the paper cups. I myself could only stand and watch. I did not dare come face to face with the warden who had been biased against me from the beginning.
Ah Kong completed the cups one-by-one. Each cup took him many minutes. Some of the finished cups could be used, but some could not. He could no longer bend the fingers of his right hand and this was a serious obstacle in making paper cups. Oh … don’t criticize Ah Kong only. Ordinary people, with normal hands like me, who had made paper cups for many months before Ah Kong arrived, could still not do so with ease.
We stood and watched Ah Kong’s attempts from a distance. Many people expressed pity for Ah Kong. Us Thais are truly kind. There are a lot of good prisoners, even if they go under the title “prisoner” as it may be [rather than Mr. or Ms., for the terms of their sentences, Thai prisoners are given the title “male prisoner” or “female prisoner” –trans.]
The Zone 8 warden stood and watched Ah Kong confusedly make paper cups for a long time. Then he walked to enter his office. Once he had gone, can you believe it, something unexpected happened that brought me to tears. Several prisoners, who you could say possessed an expert talent at paper cup-making, came to pick up Ah Kong’s paper. Each person picked up one packet and walked back to make the paper cups at his own table without missing a beat. Whenever this image comes to mind, I cannot help but be struck deeply by the generosity of our fellow prisoners. At the depths of humanity, the greatest humanity can be found as well. This was true without exception in the land that we call “prison.”
From then forward, Ah Kong was assisted by his fellow prisoners in this fashion. This continued each day for two months, until Ah Kong received bail two months after he arrived.
Denial of bail and return to prison
In the middle of January 2011, Ah Kong returned to the prison once again. I did not know ahead of time and received the news from a friend who went to visit the family. At first, I did not believe it and wanted to see with my own eyes whether or not it was true. Then Ah Kong sent a letter from Zone 1 (the zone into which everyone was received into the prison) to me in Zone 8. Then I was certain of the truth of his return. I sent food and other necessary items to him in Zone 1. Later, Ah Kong said that this time he had not prepared anything at all because he thought that he would receive bail.
Subsequently, I asked for assistance from people outside the prison for Ah Kong to be sent to Zone 8 as before. Ah Kong was familiar with this zone and he himself wanted to come. We would make him feel warm and safe as we had during his previous stint.
But it seemed that on the day that prisoners were assigned zones, the Zone 8 warden, who had once loathed lèse majesté prisoners, had a change of heart. He did not select Ah Kong to return to Zone 8. My personal view is that it is because at that time, Ah Kong was in the news a lot and the warden was afraid of being caught up with those involved in lèse majesté cases. So Ah Kong was sent to Zone 3, a zone without any red shirts at all.
I myself did not know that Ah Kong had been moved to Zone 3. I thought that no matter what, he would have to return to the original zone. But not long after that, when I went out to see family who came to visit and walked past Zone 3, I saw Ah Kong. He was picking up leaves and I called out to him. He was happy and ran to see me. He said, “I don’t have any friends here at all, help me move to Zone 8.” I promised him I would do so and immediately asked for help from Anon Numpa, our lawyer.
And then our request was fulfilled. Ah Kong was moved to Zone 8. The matter of Ah Kong became serious, because moving to a different zone is usually very difficult and must go through a committee. But in Ah Kong’s case, he was likely able to move from the assistance of some big people.
But who would have known … Ah Kong’s transfer created a great deal of displeasure for the yellow shirt warden. It came in the form of “I did not want you, but you were stubborn until you were able to come.”
The vengeful plan began once again
Ah Kong was assigned to the paper cup-making unit once again. And, without doubt, assigned the full amount. He sat to make cups squarely in front of the Buddha statue as before. But there was a difference this time. I can say that at that time, we, red shirts in Zone 8, had garnered popularity and visible respect from our fellow prisoners. Everyone respected us. The group of political prisoners had expanded. The amount of work that Ah Kong had to do each day was 5 kilos (approximately 2500 cups). The clerk of the work unit, who was a friend of mine, helped distribute the amount to other prisoners to do because they sympathized with Ah Kong. But this was done secretly without the knowledge of the warden. If he found out, those who helped would face hardship.
As I became more experienced in prison life, I also became more aware of what I could do. So I asked Anon Numpa, our lawyer, to help coordinate with the big people, to move Ah Kong from this work unit to another one in which he would not have to work. The primary reason was that I was afraid that my friend who was the clerk of the paper cup-making unit would face trouble if one day the cruel warden found out. But the iron-clad, infallible reason was that, “Old people like Ah Kong should not have to work.”
After working for a time to transfer Ah Kong to another work unit, results began to come but nothing total. The warden ordered Ah Kong to go “separate-and-re-stack” cups. He did not have to sit and make paper cups any longer. But he had to sit and work on the floor and pull paper cups off the stack of wet recently-made cups, wait for them to dry, and then re-stack them. Ah Kong had to sit from the morning until the evening to do this work, and could not go anywhere. I remained unsatisfied. So I began to move on the issue of Ah Kong once again … via Anon Numpa, our trusted lawyer.
This time … the warden of Zone 8 met with the real deal. An order to transfer Ah Kong to the library came down like a bolt of lightning. The library was the most relaxed unit and one in which one did not have to do any work. I fully acknowledge that this order resulted in the warden losing face. For certain, people also began to see the amassed credit held by the red shirts in Zone 8. People started to treat us with respect because they thought that those of us inside were being looked after by people outside the prison. Simply put, it is that we had was that we were “big noodles” [“เส้นใหญ่,” meaning that they had significant and powerful connections —trans.], and no longer the prisoners who were tread on and looked down upon at the beginning..
When one has a lot of time … one thinks a lot
After Ah Kong was moved to the library work unit, he began to have more free time each day. Since he did not have to work, Ah Kong and his friends in the red shirt group would mass in the cafeteria on the second floor of the building. We chose to go to the cafeteria because the guards there supported the red shirts and were kind to us. It was also a way to avoid the warden, who watched ASTV all day.
The red shirts established a small group and called ourselves “UDD House” [the UDD is the United Democratic Front Against Dictatorship, the official red shirt organization]. In the morning, we sat and drank coffee and talked about politics in the cafeteria. At lunch, the majority of red shirts would came and ate together at the same time. I was an exception. I went to eat separately with a friend, older brother Chatthong, who was an important person who I respected. We had long eaten together, before the UDD House was established. (Older brother Chatthong died in the prison while waiting for the sentence of the Court of First Instance. When he died, he had been waiting for the decision of the court for more than five years.)
If we had free time, then I sat and talked about politics with Ah Kong in the cafeteria. But most of the time, I sat and talked with older brother Chatthong elsewhere in the building. He wanted me to distance myself from politics and we spent our time talking about doing business.
Ah Kong this time ... was changed from the earlier Ah Kong
Ah Kong’s mental state was greatly weakened. He had requested bail many times to no effect. He was absent-minded and very attached to me. Wherever I walked, he would follow. If I sat to write a letter, he would sit and watch me write. This made feel like I lacked all privacy, and many times, I grew angry with him. I sulked. But I could not pout for long. When I saw him, I felt compassion because I was the only one he could talk to. Thinking about it, when we sulked, it the same as when a man and a woman are moody with one another. Ah Kong had to come and make up with me. In truth, it was my crime. But what could I do? I was also stressed. Sometimes I could not step outside the stress, and got upset with Ah Kong.
I felt terrible … but I thought that I had already done my best.
If had free time after finishing my work, I often invited Ah Kong to write letters. I wrote letters in the cafeteria every day. But Ah Kong did not like to write letters because his vision was not good. So I volunteered to write letters to Aunty Oo, his wife, and his children and grandchildren, and to tell them stories about Ah Kong. When the letters arrived, we read them together. Receiving letters from people outside is one of the moments of greatest happiness for people who are in prison. This is the real truth.
The last bar of the battery of life
Despite the hardship and difficulty of life inside the prison, those of us who faced political cases loved and were bonded with one another. We never argued, we were united. And I was the most senior of all of the political prisoners. Although everything in the later period fractured, no matter how spare our happiness, that morale returned for some of us.
After Ah Kong was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly insulting the monarchy, he was clearly discouraged. This was true even though we comforted him by telling him that in a case like his, he could ask for a royal pardon and not long after would be released. We could sense it. Even though the prison officials periodically told us that if we requested a pardon, our request would definitely be entertained. This was good news, and should have boosted morale and provided hope. But it did neither for Ah Kong.
His final hope was to request bail. The titles of many scholars and many millions of baht in cash were put up as bail for him the last time before his death. Ah Kong was on what you could call “the last bar of battery life” that is being extinguished, moment by moment.
I still remember the day we learned news of his final request for bail for temporary release. At that time, we had a lot of hope. Ah Kong looked cheerful and vigorous. That night, we had a farewell party and he prepared to pass on his personal items. He would give this item to this person, and that item to that person. Everything was in order. Before we went into the sleeping cells, I hugged Ah Kong and told him, “I wish you good luck, Ah Kong. I am pleased for you. You don’t have to come visit me. Go be with your children and grandchildren. Wait for me to get out, and we will go to visit the ocean together.” I was happy because I thought that Ah Kong would be released for certain. Ah Kong was the same as he had been at the beginning. He opened his mouth and cried. He hugged me. He was like a child. Yes, this was his style. We separated and went into the sleeping cells.
That night … we did not hear any sounds of keys. The sound of a key in the lock to the cells was the signal that someone had been released.
The next morning we met as usual. Everyone went to go comfort Ah Kong and told him to be hopeful. He and I had decided we would not continue to fight our cases. This was because we felt that when academics, who are in a position of security in society, plus two million baht in cash in bail money, if I remember the amount correctly, is still not enough to secure bail, then how can we continue to have hope? We then decided to have our lawyer withdraw our appeals and proceed with requesting a pardon as quickly as possible. Ah Kong withdrew his appeal and made the appeal for a pardon before me. I subsequently did the same.
It is hard to wait … for justice
When one’s will has dissipated … everything seems completely bleak.
Although everything seemed to proceed swiftly and there was hope, Ah Kong was unable to restore his mind. He was full of despair and went back to his original state. Twenty, the number of years in prison to which he had been sentenced, was very harsh. All of us worried about his mental state. He was preoccupied. Each day, he sat and only waited for Aunty Oo to come visit him. He was frequently in an irritable mood with other people (he did not dare with me, ha ha). All of us, including his friends who were other prisoners on other kinds of cases, loved and worried about Ah Kong together.
April’s hot weather is brutal. The air from outside is already hot and it mixes with the heat from the iron bars. The bars hold in the heat and it expands to reach us. This is a tidy hell.
In the final 3-4 day before his death, I spent time with Ah Kong in the cafeteria. His condition started to deteriorate then, but we did not know what was wrong with him. He could not eat anything and his stomach protruded. After going to see the doctor inside the prison twice, he was still not better. We then called for him to go to the main hospital for prisoners, the Corrections Department Hospital.
Ah Kong was wore a tank top only, stripped bare, and laid on a table in the cafeteria as if he was fast asleep. I sat and talked with friends and we used a cardboard box to fan him. We did not know that he had cancer at that point. Looking from the outside, all we knew was that his stomach was enlarged.
A wave goodbye … he left without return
I did not have permission to wheel Ah Kong’s wheelchair to the clinic. It was not my duty to do so. And in a prison, one cannot walk indiscriminately or freely here and there. So I only walked with him to get into a wheelchair at the front of the door to the zone. I was happy that he was going to go see a big doctor. Can you believe it? Nearly all prisoners think that the Corrections Hospital is a quality hospital that can be trusted. Once one is in the hands of the doctors, one will be safe. Hmm …this place is called a hospital. When Ah Kong went to the hospital that day, who would have thought that it would be no different than being in the prison? It was no different at all. This is because there was no doctor in the hospital. There were only sick people, the hurt and the ailing. Everyone was close to death. How could Ah Kong, whose mental condition was weak and despondent, bear it?
Grasping his hand in farewell, hoping that that he would return, turned into touching his hand for the last time … in his life.