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When Ajarn Tum (Sudsanguan) Suthisorn was released from prison, Ajarn Charnvit Kasetsiri greeted her with a public message on Facebook that read, “Welcome back from the small prison to the large prison” (he did not use these exact words, but this was the gist). I gave my knee a loud slap when I read these lines. That is exactly right.

Every present-day government, even those that are not military dictatorships, are all punitive. Military dictatorships are even more unabashedly punitive.

Foucault calls a state that is under the power of a punitive government a carceral state. In such a state, the regulations governing prison life are replicated and used until they become the norm in rule and other activities in society. This becomes possible when people who believe that they are free provide their consent, not because a group of soldiers used force to seize power or because the state has a monopoly on the use of violence. But this freedom of the free people rests upon the imprisonment or even the assassination of those who possess a stance that threatens the carceral state or punitive government.

When these free people see others punished because they threatened the carceral state, they can then feel assured of their own freedom.

It may not be necessary for me to provide examples of the preservation of the freedom of the free people under the current military government, because it is readily apparent. But I wish to caution you to think back to before 22 May 2014. The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) movement was carried out with a fulsome awareness by those who joined the protest they were free (or even had a duty) to protest.

The conception of freedom held by the masses of the PDRC did not rest on “connections” alone, but was also built upon the repeated patterns of the judicial process that condensed into tradition. Those people who have high-level “connections” are protected from the law. The sanctity of the law can be maintained because those without “connections” or those with low-level “connections” will be still be arrested and imprisoned or killed and tossed aside. Therefore, Thai law retains the sanctity to firmly protect the freedom of the free people. There will always be those who are punished by the state, but the free people know that they and those like them have nothing to fear.

Faith that freedom would protect the free people from Thai law and the Thai judicial process meant that the adherents of the PDRC could go to extremes in their actions without concern for consequences.

You may remember that there were hundreds of red shirts arrested and locked up on accusations of arson, terrorism and lese majeste during that time, even though we were under an elected government.

As I have already noted, all governments, whether they come from an election or a coup, are punitive. It is merely more evident in a government which arises from a coup.

This matter of free people and freedom is a compelling one. The carceral state does not only come from above, but is motivated from below as well. The pressure from below may be even more important than that from above. I discuss this via an example with which we are well-acquainted, that of Thailand. The free people reproduce the prison to shape the conditions of both their physical and psychological lives. I will address the physical environment first.

The physical reproduction of the prison

I once drove around a quarter where the wealthy lived in Chicago. I no longer remember the name of the area, but it was close to Northwestern University. There were also areas where poor people, who were often black, lived. I drove around a part of central Detroit which was run-down and bereft of anyone except impoverished black people (during my time there).

It is said that all large U.S. cities are like this. Nor are such divisions limited only to large cities. I studied in a small city and it was divided along the lines of rich, middle-class, poor, and out-of work people (who were also black).

Neighborhoods in the United States hold meaning beyond simply being a place where one lives and matters with regard to the services provided by the state as well. For example, schools that are located in poor neighborhoods are allocated smaller budgets [than those in wealthy neighborhoods] and cannot recruit and retain decent teachers. Therefore, the education in neighborhoods where poor people live is second-rate. In addition to not producing workers with the ability to make a living in the modern economy, such neighborhoods simultaneously produce many different kinds of future criminals (I don’t know if this is an accurate picture, or if it is just a stereotype that white people create about black people).

I have heard that cities in Europe are no different. For example, the East End of London, a city about which I only possess a surface understanding, is the quarter where they say that poor people live.

Bangkok is swiftly changing and dividing along such lines. Many areas have already undergone transformation. The real estate business inevitably forces poor people out of being able to afford to live in certain areas.

Some people may object that Bangkok, and all historic cities, are comprised of quarters and neighborhoods. This is true. But take a look at the old quarters and neighborhoods: they were made up of many kinds of people from different classes, and in some cases, many ethnicities. In Ban Chang Lor in the old times, in addition to being a place where sculptors lived, there were also poor people, beggars, serfs who fled their masters, wives who fled their husbands, minor lords, etc.

I was a Sukhumwit Road (north of Phrakhanong Canal) kid. This is now a neighborhood for rich people, but when I was a child, there were rice farmers and rice fields approximately 500 feet from my house. Farmers often herded their buffalo past the front of my house in search of grass for the animals. In those days, many who were not wealthy as well as those who were wealthy lived in the Sukhumwit area (which people often called Bang Kapi because it is all to the east of the Saen Saeb Canal). There was also a “Soi Klang,” known to be one of the city’s red-light districts.


But in the present, the neighborhoods and quarters of Bangkok are rapidly changing. Many have already changed. Bangkok is like other large cities around the globe. People of different economic statuses choose (or are forced to choose) to live in different areas. The target residents for newly-constructed apartment buildings and housing estates are set from the beginning depending on the location. Stores of the same name will market different products to those who dwell in different areas, appropriate to their customers’ economic and social status.

Impoverished people and those who lack opportunity are forced out of the inner city and surrounding areas into neighborhoods which receive substandard state services.

This kind of division is now spreading to other fast-growing cities in Thailand.

What do urban areas and neighborhoods that have been divided according to economic and social status like this conjure for you? I think about “zones” in prisons hat divide prisoners according to punishment, sex, conduct, etc.

Suppose we want to purchase high-quality goods, we know what “zone” to go to in order to obtain them. Once we know what “zone” a person’s house is located in, we immediately know his status. We are well-practiced from our long stint living in the prison.

I have not yet discussed recently-constructed state and private buildings. They are large, imposing, and no different from prisons. (The architectural thinking of ancient Japan was to not separate the “space” between inside and outside the building. This has completely disappeared from urban architecture in Bangkok.)

“Prisons” have sprouted up all over the city. The free people feel safe.

This is no joke. I say this in all seriousness. Let me give you an example from my own life in order to further reflect on the life of the free people.

At present, I live in a housing estate just like any other housing estate. Like others, it has a contiguous fence bordering all sides. On the plus side, there are openings through which once can see out. Some housing estates construct tall and opaque walls that are barely different from prisons. One passes through a large gate, manned by security guards twenty-hours a day, to enter the estate. Outsiders may only enter by showing their ID card, which is then scanned and a copy kept. I have visited some housing estates in which the security guards retain one’s ID card while one is inside. Some guards will call and ask the homeowner whether or not he grants permission to a given guest to enter. I have not even addressed the surveillance cameras in which individual homeowners are advised to invest.

This is no different from the procedure required by the Department of Corrections to visit prisoners, right?

Housing estates make those who live inside them feel safe. On the other hand, they make them feel that those outside pose a great danger. Outsiders are untrustworthy and should not be contacted or mixed with more than is necessary. The security measures then come to be seen as an indispensable necessity.

Security is now a selling point for housing estate projects. I just saw an advertisement for an estate with a nine-level security system.

Present-day existence, in which we have an awareness of only our lack of safety, causes us to choose prison life. Viewed from another perspective, housing estates are prisons in which all of those inside (inmates) are surveilled all the time. They can leave and go wherever they wish, but the car they drive must have the seal of the prison affixed to its front, otherwise they will not be allowed back into their homes.

If a person falls under the gaze of the NCPO, there is no need for the NCPO to send plainclothes military officers to visit and waste time surveillance him. The NCPO can hire the security guard of the housing estate where the given target lives to report on his hourly movements. The majority of security guards are former conscripts anyway.

The psychological reproduction of the prison

Foreign intellectuals tend to say that the neoliberalization of the economy increases uncertainty and insecurity in life. For example, companies may downsize in order to increase their profits or may move their production to a location with cheaper labor costs. Neoliberalism affects the lives of Thais in the same manner. I won’t repeat what has already been said on this topic.

All of these foreign intellectuals live in countries that have the rule of law, or at least the law is enforced equally and according to the letter. Thais do not live in a society with the rule of law. Therefore, Thais face a greater degree of uncertainty and insecurity from both the state and society.

We have no idea of what we must say and what we must not say. We have no idea of what we must do and what we must not do. Until recently, it was no longer even clear what color one had to wear. From what I have read about life in prisons, especially Thai prisons, I think that uncertainty and insecurity may be the true, ultimate punishment inside the prison.

Do not decide for yourself what you must do or what you must not do. You must only act according to orders. This is because all of it is without reason. For example, what is the reason why prisoners must get down on their ones to speak with the “master,” which is the word used to refer to the wardens? There is no explanation for this provided anywhere. They order you to do it and so you do it. A life in which all of one’s actions are compelled without explanation is a torturous punishment because it goes against the human nature of being one’s own person. Thai prisoners remove prisoners from society and alienate them from themselves as well.

Even worse, the orders are not given only by the “masters.”  Prisoners in the gangs of different zones may also give additional commands. Everyone must uniformly follow these orders without querying the reason.

I think that the large prison is no different. As a child, I was forced to study laws as part of “civic duties.” But none of my teachers explained the logic behind these laws, whether as regards laws about birth registration or bigger issues such as paying taxes, military conscription, or compulsory education.

All of the Thais that I know studied civic duties in the same fashion.

These are only the uncertainties and insecurities that come from the state. Those which come from society comprise a whole other apple cart. If you drive incorrectly on the road and collide with another person’s vehicle, you would logically surmise that you must compensate the other person for damage to his property. Instead, you are beaten and forced to bow down to the car. If it was me, I would bend down and bow to the car in a daze of confusion, because that is better than continuing to be beaten. [Note: In early November 2016, Kittisak Singto, a motorcyclist, hit the car of a well-known actor and television host, Acharanat Ariyaritwikol. The car’s tail light was damaged in the collision. Acharanat dragged the motorcyclist across the road, punched him, and then demanded that he bow down to the car. The entire series of events was captured on video and went viral. Kittisak filed an assault complaint against Acharanat.—trans.]

How is this any different from erring and stepping on the feet of a big fish in the small prison?

Existence, no matter the society or period, lacks fundamental security because it is subject to the [Buddhist] trinity of impermanence, suffering, and the lack of the self. This cannot be avoided. But we can console ourselves in two ways. One is to build sustainable truths in our personal lives and society, from the institution of marriage to governance and the socio-economic system. Then there is religion, all forms of which promise eternal life of one sort or another.

But as we know, those things which comfort us lack of great deal of security these days. Families may split up at any time. The economy goes up and down and it is difficult to predict. Even rulers, or the form of rule, are increasingly unstable. And even religion itself is subject to constant change in the modern world. People convert to new religions or cease to believe in religion in part or completely. This is not uncommon.

I think that Thais in the present are faced with greater feelings of uncertainty and insecurity than any other generation of Thais. This may also be why we have come into greater conflict with one another now than at any other time.

Our lives are the same as the lives of those in the small prison. Anxiety runs very high because everything transports according to the orders of those with power; their positions, in turn, are also uncertain, insecure, and in constant flux.  In addition, certain and fixed rules of conduct cannot be found. This causes the prisoners to split into many factions and cliques. Conflict is pervasive.

Amidst the uncertainty and insecurity of life in the modern world, one thing has remained stable for a large number of Thais. This is the institution of the monarchy, which is believed to have formed an unchanging pair with Thai society for many centuries. The institution of the monarchy therefore provides greater feelings of security and certainty than ordinary modern institutions.

Therefore, it is no surprise that many people place a high value on letting the institution of the monarchy continue unchanged. Sensitivity surrounds everything that may affect or alter the institution of the monarchy. Any expression other than the greatest respect is a sensitive matter.

I do not know how to explain the attacks by masses of people on those who expressed an insufficient level of sorrow (according to their standards) after the king’s death. Perhaps it can be said that the death of Rama IX completely threatened the last secure and certain thing in their lives. They may have realized that a transformation was taking place that they did not wish to see and so grew angry at those who did not express the same anxiety about the changes that might take place in the institution.

During this period of the royal transition, it is worth observing that we are performing many “rituals.” I don’t mean the royal rituals that are broadcast live on television (even though these are also a kind of “ritual”). Scholars define a “ritual” as an action that ordinary people do collectively over and over again without planning to do so beforehand. Mourning is one kind of ritual. Paying respect to the king’s corpse is another kind of ritual, as is the arranging of conveniences for mourners by both the government and private entities. Public display of the king’s corpse in the royal urn, so that people can express their grief, is another kind of ritual.

Even though all of these actions express sincere respect and mourning for the king, they are all also “rituals.”

Old-school anthropologists (Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown) explained that we perform rituals in order to manage our anxiety. We perform some rituals because we are not certain that the technology that we use will provide the desired outcome. For example, we plant rice using the techniques passed down from our ancestors, but we cannot guarantee that there will not be aphids, a flood, a drought, etc. Therefore, we must perform some rituals to reduce our worries, such as the Ploughing Ceremony.

When our scientific knowledge improves, it is said that we will then rely on more accurate and effective technology. Rituals will become less frequent.

But we perform other kinds of rituals when we have used up or lack technology to resolve our problems. There are worries and concerns that we cannot fix with our existing knowledge. For example, where do we go when we die? Will we have sons or daughters according to our wishes? How we avoid separation from that which we love? We perform rituals to address these conundrums, and they tend to be religious (depending on how we define religion).

Is it possible that placement of the king’s corpse in the royal urn has significantly impacted Thais’ sense of what they once held to be secure, and so has therefore prompted an extraordinary degree of concern? And is the possible that they must turn to various kinds of “rituals” in order to quiet their worried and fearful hearts?

The matter of discipline also reflects the similarity between the large and small prisons.

For certain, prison is full of rules. But Thai life outside the prison is also full of rules. Whether or not I think Thais are disciplined is one thing, but they have a very keen sense of rules. Thai leaders draw on this awareness to stress that we should not have freedom because we lack discipline.

I have heard this teaching since I was a child. I still hear the powerful repeat it these days.

When I went to America for the first time, I prepared to properly cross the road at crosswalks. But I rarely see people use crosswalks except in large cities in which the speeding lines of cars meant that one should only cross at stoplights. But on small roads, even in big cities, people cross the road when a break in the line of cars provides an opportunity, just as people do in Thailand.

London appeared to be the same during my brief visit.

Crossing the road in Bangkok these days is impossible other than at a crosswalk. This is not because it is against the law, but because they have built fences and walls on the middle of the road. If you cross, you may not be able to make it to the other side.

Iron fences and cement walls are disciplinarians, like wardens in prisons.

Whether or not Thais are going to act according to rules is one issue. But I can attest that Thais have a strong awareness of rules.

Moreover, like rules inside the prison, these rules do not apply equally.

We forbid people from cross the road anywhere other than crosswalks. But we give little regard to drivers who stop to allow people to cross at crosswalks. Further, we do not construct anything comparable to the iron fences and cement walls to protect those in crosswalks from being run over.

Everyone in prison must bathe with a limited amount of time and limited scoops of water, except for some people. On the road, there are big fish and little fish. No different from inside the prison.

This is the carceral state back into which Professor Tum has been released from prison.


Note: On 21 February 2014, three members of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), Sudsanguan Suthisorn, Daranee Kritbunyalai, and Picha Wichitsilp led a group of protestors to demonstrate in front of the Civil Court in Bangkok. They held up banners criticizing the court and a funeral wreath in front of the court to criticize the actions of the court.  The three were indicted for contempt of court and court proceedings began in late 2014.  During the proceedings, Sudsanguan and Picha confessed to the allegation against them and Daranee fled the country. Sudsanguan and Picha were both sentenced to one month in prison by the Court of First Instance and both appealed. During the appeal, Picha was killed in a car crash. The Appeal Court upheld the decision of the Court of First Instance and Sudsanguan appealed to the Supreme Court. On 8 November 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the initial sentence and Sudsanguan, also known as Tum, who is an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Administration at Thammasat University, began a one-month term of imprisonment at the Central Women’s Prison in Bangkok. In the essay below, originally published in Thai in two parts in Matichon Weekly (part 1, part 2) in December 2016, historian Nidhi Eoseewong reflects on her release from the what he terms the “small prison” back onto the “large prison” of Thai society, or back into the prison outside the prison. He offers a sharp commentary on the current state of Thai society, particularly the ideas of freedom (เสรีภาพ), free people (เสรีชน), and equality (ความเสมอภาค), or the lack thereof, all of which structure difference and life under dictatorship in Thailand.—trans.


Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn.

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