Death of 'Uncle SMS' puts govt in focus
Ruling camp under pressure to change its hands-off stance over lese majeste law
Lese majeste detainee Amphon "Akong" Tangnoppakul, known as "Uncle SMS", succumbed to cancer at the Bangkok Remand Prison Hospital yesterday morning.
Amphon's wife, Rosmalin Tangnoppakul, was told that the prisoner - one of Thailand's most controversial lese majeste convicts - was still able to take his medication early yesterday but then he suddenly died around 9.10am.
His death will most likely rekindle controversy about the lese majete law, which led to his conviction and a staggering 20-year prison term.
While the death has politically embarrassed the Democrat Party, under whose reign the charges were brought against Amphon, Yingluck Shinawatra's government, which has vowed never to support any moves to amend the law, might face pressure from the red shirts.
However, with MPs in both government and opposition blocs not likely to support or sponsor any amendments to the lese majeste law, Amphon's death might not make any serious difference to the momentum of the campaign against it.
Grief-stricken Rosmalin broke down in tears as she told the press outside the prison hospital that she did not know what to say.
"I can't take in any information," she said.
Witnesses said Amphon's body appeared to be very bloated in the stomach area, suggesting a possible liver complication. The body was taken to the Forensic Institute, where it was to undergo an autopsy today with a red-shirt medical doctor and a relative in the room as witnesses.
Amphon was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sending four text messages deemed defamatory to Her Majesty the Queen to then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's personal secretary.
The sentence was handed down late last year and the case won much publicity both locally and overseas, especially since it was believed that the mobile-phone number could have been stolen and Amphon, 60 at the time, might not in fact have sent those messages.
About 30 supporters were present at the prison hospital yesterday, including Assistant Professor Puangthong Pawakapan of Chula-longkorn University's political science faculty.
The professor is a member of the Public Campaign Committee pushing for amendments to the lese majeste law.
"This is the biggest tragedy of the law. The more it is enforced, the less merciful it becomes. He wouldn't have died if he had been granted bail and given the opportunity to get proper medical care," Puangthong said.
Handing down harsh punishment to offenders would only create a climate of fear.
The maximum penalty for a single lese majeste offence is 15 years in prison.
Suda Rangkupan, a key member of the red-shirt movement and a linguistics lecturer at Chulalong-korn University, was also at the hospital. Tearfully crying out that the law is "unjust", Suda said Amphon was not provided adequate medical care.
"End the ordeals now," she said, referring to the 11 other people detained under the lese majeste law.
Suda also led a group of people opposed to the law to the Criminal Court yesterday evening to mourn Amphon's death and call on the government to take immediate action in amending the controversial law and free prisoners of conscience.
Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen, one of Amphon's three defence lawyers, confirmed that the late prisoner had recently decided not to take the case to the Appeals Court because senior officials from the Corrections Department had told them that it might just be better to seek a royal pardon.
"Those who think we have not done enough have the right to their belief. We regret [his death] but we insist that we did our best. Everyone in society is partly responsible for this, including the justice system," Poonsuk said.
Rosmalin lit one incense stick 2.20pm to urge Amphon's spirit to follow his body as it was carried out in a rescue truck to the Forensic Institute.
"Akong come, Akong come," she called out as the truck carrying her ex-husband's body passed by her.
The body of Amphon will be borne today from the Institute of Forensic Medicine Police General, then on to the Justice Ministry, Government House, and Parliament House. A group of red shirts opposed to the lese mejeste law announced the route yesterday. The body will undergo the bathing rite in front of the Criminal Court on Ratchada-phisek Road.