The death of Ampon Tangnoppakul, better known as Ah Kong, once again has thrust Section 112 of the constitution into the public limelight. News of his death was widely circulated through online social and alternative news networks before the mainstream and international media picked it up.
The news generated a great deal of emotion among activists, who called for changes to the lese majeste law. But there are few indications at this stage that his case will become a “cause celebre”, and serve as the kind of catalyst for democracy that famous or infamous prisoners of conscience have, at times, around the world, like Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn of Russia, Ai Weiwei of China and Bradley Manning of the United States.
Established political dissidents can take on the power of a state with the political savvy and allies they have developed. Ampon was in the end, a man out of his depth, likely caught up in a game of political intrigue that the 62-year-old man could not have expected.
Ampon was sentenced to 20 years in prison and had not been granted bail prior to his conviction, which violated his human rights because of the disproportionate punishment, and heavy-handed treatment. This was a person who was already suffering from cancer before his arrest, and who had neither the resources nor the level of fitness to escape, if bail had been granted. Neither was he given the opportunity to stay at a hospital for prisoners because of the rationale that his condition was not sufficiently serious. All of this may indicate some political interference in the case.
“It may seem that the impact of disparities of political power has been to distort both the content and the application of human rights doctrines in ways that serve the interest of powerful actors at the expense of others,” Charles Beitz, an academic from Princeton University in the US, wrote in an observation not long ago. His words give some insight into our own predicament.
Neither the current government nor the opposition want to take up the case, because the political risks outweigh the potential benefits, and both sides have already fallen victim to the questions relating to Section 112. When the arguments vis-a-vis the law are polarised to such an extent, that any push for reform can lead to the accusation that an attempt is being made to bring down the monarchy itself, then political expediency wins out.
If Thailand is to truly mature as a democracy, politicians need to be encouraged out of their inertia. However, this can perhaps only be done when the population at large demands in sufficient numbers that the principles of fighting for liberty, objectivity and integrity overrides any existing political calculations and manoeuvrings.
In November 2011, the Asian Human Rights Commission named Ampon as a political prisoner, and asked the government to facilitate his immediate release. At the same time, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an outspoken academic who is now based at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, launched his “Free Ah Kong” campaign. This received the support of more than 1,000 people, and more than 500 people sent in their photos with the words “Ah Kong” imprinted on their hands in order to show their support. Although these are in the scheme of things, not high numbers; it is significant in giving weight to the fact that there are people who perceive the injustice below the surface in the Land of Smiles, as Thailand is so often called.
Ampon’s death will not change Thailand overnight and may not bring about much extra support in favour of the Nitirat group’s proposal to reform the lese majeste law. This is because there are still a large number of powerful royalists in Thailand who refuse to openly acknowledge the impact of the abuse of Section 112 on human rights. Nevertheless, his death will draw attention to the question over the interpretation of the law and the decision by the judges. Furthermore, his death will at least bring into focus the issues of freedom and human rights when it comes to the debate on democracy, which may generate momentum for the progress of democracy in the long term. After all, the push for reforming Section 112 is being done in the name of protecting and promoting the rights of all the citizens of Thailand. And through the story of Ah Kong, we have now learnt how precious life is.
Ampon was like any other citizen of Thailand, in that he was a relatively insignificant person when it comes to the state structures.
There are still questions regarding the veracity of the argument that he even sent the now infamous four text messages at all.
His only mistake then, was to unwittingly become caught up in the larger game of politics, where he quickly found himself out of his depth, and subject to forces far greater than himself. Which is no mistake at all. Does this prove that the human rights of the individual are now being negated in Thailand, simply in order to send out a message for the big picture narrative? Namely, that if you step out of line, this could happen to you also. Was the case of Ampon an opportunity to fire a shot across the bows of the Thai people in order to make it known that you too, might be dispensable if it is politically expedient for that to be done?
Does the death of Ampon mean anything to us, as a society? Maybe not if we are talking about any tangible impact on the reform of Section 112, which he fell victim to. He may yet come to be seen as an icon of the pro-democracy activists, who might take an opportunity to use his memory as a weapon in their fight for change.
This could be the legacy for an individual of this world, who took a chance to speak out, but prematurely lost his life in prison, as a result. Too late for him now. Ah Kong, may you rest in peace. Soon we will find out what the future holds for any others who may also fall victim to abuse of Section 112.
Titipol Phakdeewanich is a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University