This voice from another side
Accused by some of being mentally unsound, academic Somsak Jiamteerasakul continues his calls for reforms
Thammasat University historian Somsak Jiamteerasakul is probably the most under-reported public intellectual in Thailand. That's not because he doesn't have anything to say; quite the contrary in fact. A vocal critic of the Thai monarchy and the country's lese-majeste law, Somsak has long been treated by most mainstream mass media as persona non grata.
These media disapprove of Somsak's fierce and critical stance towards the institution of the monarchy, which they often portray as the "revered institution" or "the highest" institution. Or perhaps these media feel that the draconian and controversial lese-majeste law should remain in place.
However, in cyber space, on alternative media, and amongst left-leaning students, intellectuals and the red shirts, the 52-year-old Somsak has become something of an intellectual cult figure.
Last Sunday, when Somsak and his colleagues held a press conference at Thammasat University to talk about his claimed harassment by the Thai Army, the large lecture room at the Law Faculty was packed with some 500 supporters and admirers.
Unsurprisingly, no major television channel sent reporters to cover the event and only a handful of quality print media reporters turned up. There were many less-professional looking video camera men and women, however. Alternative media like Prachatai.com were there and a young female Internet activist tweeted whatever Somsak said several times a minute, while unbeknown to her, a Western accomplice, instantaneously translated her Thai-language tweets into English to Somsak's non-Thai followers.
Somsak, who received his PhD from Australia's Monash University and wrote a dissertation on the communist novement in Thailand, has 5,000 Facebook friends too.
The stark contrast between the deep interest amongst a growing section of the Thai population and the disdain or even denial of Somsak's existence by the majority of the Thai mainstream mass media is becoming more acute and reflects the fact that there's something very wrong with the current political forum in Thailand.
In a genuinely open and democratic society, the mass media would discuss and debate what Somsak proposed last year - an eight-point reform plan for the Thai monarchy. This includes the abolition of lese majeste law, the abolition of one-sided information and education about the monarchy and the abolition of the Privy Council.
It is not too far-fetched to say that if any mainstream mass media were to conduct a proper interview with Somsak, who is known for his straightforward remarks and ultra-rationalistic arguments on the monarchy institution, some 80 per cent, perhaps more, of the academic's comments, would likely be censored and left unreported.
Thailand, Somsak said last Sunday, needs to normalise talk about the monarchy institution. The historian, who was a student leader back in 1976 and was detained for nearly two years after the right-wing coup and the lynching and killings of October 6, 1976, insists we need to be able to discuss the issue of the monarchy institution in an honest manner.
Somsak argues that it's "abnormal" for all Thais to have to publicly hold the same, positive-only view about the monarchy.
"If you don't agree with this then let us have a debate," Somsak told his appreciative audience.
"I love this country, as a home. But as citizens, we want a nicer home, where freedom as human beings [is respected]," he told the audience. He added that he has underestimated the level of irrational thinking in Thailand. "The side that doesn't use logic is more than I initially reckoned," said Somsak, who is regarded as anti-monarchist and an enemy of the ultra-royalist yellow shirts.
The grey-haired Somsak has always maintained that he's not calling for the abolition of the monarchy institution. It is his hope that after reform, the Thai monarchy will be "modernised" like those in the West.
Challenges to the current status quo are not for the faint hearted. One female writer, popularly known as Kam Paka, spoke strongly about the need to have the light flooding into the dark recesses of the house where we all live, so we can see things and say things. But watching Kam Paka speak, it was all too obvious that her hands were shaking.
Somsak did not show any visible sign of fear, though he claims to have received threatening phone calls and alleges at least one soldier on a motorcycle has visited his home. He feels that the recent remark by Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha about a psychotic academic who causes problems" probably refers to him.
For a man who was irrevocably touched by the lynching of his friends back in 1976, in the name of defeating the "communist" students, it is understandable why the issue of the monarchy institution has become an obsession.
And with leaders like Ji Ungpakorn and Jakraphob Penkae fleeing abroad, it is easy to see why Somsak has become for some red shirts, a surrogate voice of conscience and intellectual leader.