Da Torpedo’s life behind bars
Prachatai has made several visits to Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul during her detention in the prison. Here is her life in the lockup, assembled from her own accounts.
Her parents came from China. They lived at Saphan Khao, Bangkok. She is the youngest of four children. Her father worked at a match factory. The family was quite poor. She earned a degree in political science from Ramkhamhaeng University with the support of her third brother who regularly visits her and buys stuff for her at the prison.
Daranee worked as a political reporter for many years, and knew many politicians, her brother said. Later, she worked freelance, and became an assistant to a senator who is now Chairperson of a Provincial Administrative Organization.
‘She wants to be a Member of Parliament, a politician,’ he said.
Daranee started a masters at Thammasat’s Faculty of Political Science, but quit because, she said, she was discontented with ‘some systems’ there. She eventually finished her master’s degree at Krirk University.
In prison, she tried to enrol in Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University which had just provided special courses for inmates. She asked her brother to get her academic records for the registration, but he could not complete this in time due to a lack of photos of her.
‘My sister is a bookworm. She’s also bright. She can finish a thick book in no time, and get the point,’ her brother said proudly of his sister.
With her interest in political science, Daranee seemed to be bonded to Thammasat University, particularly its founder Pridi Bhanomyong whom she held as a moral support for her life in detention. She often mentioned him, including on the day of her judgment.
‘I think of Pridi, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Mahatma Gandhi, so that I don’t feel that it’s me alone,’ she said in the cell beneath the Criminal Court, before going up to the court room to hear the verdict on 28 Aug.
Upon learning news of the death on 12 Feb of Supoj Dantrakul, a prolific author of books defending the cause of the People’s Party and its brain Pridi, Daranee went silent, and then sighed, before saying that she had expected her lawyer to ask Supoj to testify in court as her witness, because she had taken materials from his books in her public speeches.
There are many, even among her fellow anti-coup activists, who may not be comfortable with or approve her fiery and aggressive line of rhetoric, which has brought about her nickname ‘Da Torpedo’.
‘Did you actually revile him?’ the lawyer asked when she was testifying in her own defence in the defamation case filed by Gen Saprang Kanlayanamitr, one of the 2006 coup leaders.
Daranee, who had just heard her verdict of 18 years in prison for lèse majesté and was immediately put in the dock on this case, replied unwaveringly:
‘I’d spoken with reason for two years. We’d talked at our wits’ end as to why we had to oppose the coup, and how it damaged the country. Have they ever listened? And what happened on that day was the last straw, as the Thai Rak Thai Party was dissolved.’
‘I didn’t address Gen Saprang alone, but also Gen Sonthi, Gen Prem, Gen Vinai, and many others who were involved [in the coup].’
Daranee told Prachatai that she had been politically active since after the coup, giving speeches to small groups of people at Sanam Luang before the red-shirt movement was formed.
Although the democracy movement with a pro-Thaksin banner, or vice versa, has been a cause with which many intellectuals and academics feel uncomfortable, Daranee has been an outright supporter of Thaksin, lauding him as a capable politician whose policies benefit the poor.
‘I’ll support any party with this kind of policies. If the Democrat Party does good, and wins the elections, I’ll accept it,’ she told Prachatai in the early days in prison.
On judgment day, 28 Aug, her brother, Kittichai, travelled from Phuket as usual to hear the verdict. He visited his sister as he had usually done while she was held in the cell at the basement of the Criminal Court before being taken up to the court room. While Daranee could pull a normal face and talk, her brother looked grim.
‘I don’t care any more about yellow or red. My sister has fought for what she believes in. She admires [Thaksin] and fights for him. She’s sacrificed herself. But when she’s about to drown, no one has ever offered any help.’
In the early days of detention, she felt depressed, complaining that the politicians she supported did not offer any help as she had expected.
‘It would have been better if I had been arrested under the junta’s rule. But this is our government [Samak Sundaravej].’
‘It’s sad that I am locked up under a democratically elected government. If I’m freed, I’ll probably not get involved in the fight for democracy any more,’ she said at that time.
It seems she was later able to adapt to life inside prison, but she suffered from a molar abscess which caused problems when eating or brushing her teeth.
‘The food is quite bad, insufficient dishes. And dinner, where people are supposed to eat a lot, is spicy. The time is limited. I can eat only slowly. I’ve already lost 15 kgs.’
There are 50-80 people in her cell. She sometimes had to sleep on her side all night.
Inmates on lèse majesté charges seem to receive special treatment. In normal practice, inmates are separated and barred from talking to others in their first month in prison. Daranee was treated like this for three months.
When she was called to court, she came in a brown uniform with striking red-bordered sleeves, the uniform for serious criminals such as big methamphetamine dealers caught with 10,000 pills or more.
Daranee always asked the court to hold trials for her cases on the same day.
‘Each time I came to the court, I had to go through body cavity searches, before going out and coming back to the prison. They worry about drugs. But they don’t consider what kind of case it is. This is a political case. I feel really bad.’
Besides the hardships that also included bathing within 30 seconds, or actually the counting of 1-30, Daranee had to struggle to survive among fellow inmates.
Through the year in prison, she had hassles with other inmates. Both sides were punished with no bother of finding out who was in the right or wrong.
According to Daranee, some wardens disliked her, regarded her as a dangerous person, and tried to prevent others from associating with her. The pressures seemed to increasingly mount upon her after the verdict.
‘The inmates who always want to pick on me have got sort of a boost, because I was found guilty. The psychological war has grown even more intense. Many wardens don’t like me. But there are also many good wardens, particularly the chief warden. She likes the Democrat Party, but she can talk to me reasonably. Unfortunately, she’s going to retire this September. People say, “See who’s going to protect that damn Da.”’
However, as she has been convicted, she will soon be sent to another zone in the prison, where, she said, life would be harder and she would have to be subject to harder work.
As there was no proper channel for the inmates to receive news, on politics in particular, from the outside world, Daranee always asked her visitors about what was going on in politics.
She also became concerned about issues inside the prison. She asked her visitors to bring used books and magazines to donate to the prison library, as the books available there were too old and too few. Responding to her request, on 30 July a group of activists donated a number of books and magazines which had to be screened by officials to filter out political content.
She also commented on the detention of a number of young women involved in petty drug crimes as a waste of human resources, and the detention of a lot of migrant workers which crowded the prison.
In the last few months, Daranee was promoted to head to take care of her 50-60 cellmates, because she had been able to solve the problem of the malfunctioning 12-year-old gooseneck of the toilet inside the cell. She called on the wardens to pay attention to it, a venture no one else would dare to take.
She said the task of the head was quite burdensome, as she had to buy pens and paper herself to take notes and write reports, and take care of cellmates, causing her to come late for her meals. The only privileges were to have one extra tiny personal locker instead of only one and a slightly wider sleeping space.
‘After the verdict, the situation has worsened. Whatever wrong my cellmates have done is blamed on me.’
‘I don’t have high hopes. I just want my case to serve as a historical record for the next generations to learn from, like the case of Pridi.’
‘I’ve done my best. If Thai society still wants to be like this, with no freedom of speaking the truth like this, so be it,’ she said a few hours before the verdict.
Note: Daranee’s words are paraphrased from short notes taken during several visits to prison.