Tanthawut Mourns Ah Kong: An Account of Injustice
On 8 June 2012, one month after Ah Kong (Amphon Tangnoppakul) was found dead in prison custody, Tanthawut Taweewarodomkul, or “Num,” wrote an account of his life and death. Tanthawut, who, like Ah Kong, was serving a sentence following a conviction of alleged violations of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act and Article 112 of the Criminal Code, was imprisoned in the same zone of the Bangkok Remand Prison. Num took care of Ah Kong during the nearly two year period Ah Kong spent behind bars, until his death. The letter was originally posted on the website of the Ratsadornprasong Legal Institute, which serves as legal counsel in both cases, and then on Prachatai several days later.
The letter is translated here because it is an account of the events leading up to Ah Kong’s death, which remains surrounded by questions. It is a historical document –one which bears witness both to the injustice Ah Kong experienced and the compassion and solidarity between two friends, Ah Kong and Tanthawut. For those scholars currently writing about this period, and to those who will write about this period, this letter is a “primary source.” The archive of documents kept, or discarded, by the state, is not the only account of history, of what has taken place. This is a history that is devastating, and one from which it is impossible to turn away.
Written by: Num Daeng Non
Date: 8 May 2012
Title: “To a friend named Ah Kong who has passed away named, from a friend of a different age who shared the same fate”
“Amphon Tangnoppakul, Amphon Tangnoppakul, contact the Zone office. You are released!!” The announcement made through the microphone echoed throughout Zone 8. I had asked fellow prisoner friends to make the announcement for the release of Ah Kong's soul. Amid the shock and surprise at the death of the elderly man we used to see every day, myself, Mee [Suriyan Kokpuey], Mighty Wuttichai, Saichon Thongsuk, and other friends of Ah Kong's gathered and walked together to the Zone 8 exit door. The exit door is a towering door with thick bars. We opened the door slowly. Each person delivered a farewell to Ah Kong: “Bye-bye, uncle. Walk slowly home, uncle. Aunty Oo is there. Go see her, uncle!!” My last goodbye to Ah Kong went into a void of emptiness. I imagined that I could see Ah Kong walking, slowly, slowly, to Door 4, which is the door that leads out of the prison.
What caused Ah Kong to be abruptly snatched from us? We shared life together only last week. This is a question whose answer I really want to know. This should not have happened. This really should not have happened.
Symptoms leading up to Ah Kong’s death
Ah Kong and I, along with other friends, usually exercised together every morning. For 15-30 minutes before eating breakfast, Ah Kong and I would swing our hands together. In early April, Ah Kong complained to me that he had a stomachache in the area above his navel. I cannot remember whether it was on the left or the right side. I thought that perhaps his abdomen hurt from exercising. I told Ah Kong to stop the arm-swinging exercise until he ceased being in pain. Shortly beforehand, around January, Ah Kong had these symptoms. He stopped swinging his arms and the pain went away. Perhaps this time was like the last time. After that day, Ah Kong stopped exercising in order to wait and see if the pain would go away.
One week passed and Ah Kong was still experiencing pain. On Monday, 23 April, I sent him to go request to go to the clinic. But he was not checked that day because in the morning, the Lawyers’ Society came to meet with him, and Aunty Oo came to visit. So he had to move the visit to the clinic forward another day.
On Tuesday, 24 April, Ah Kong went to the clinic in the morning. But he was not really examined. Ah Kong said that they asked him what was wrong. He answered that his stomach hurt. They told him to return to the Zone and that they would arrange for medicine for him. Ah Kong returned to the Zone and received 1 packet of medicine in the evening. I am not certain about the kind of medicine they sent, but I told him to try it. If he did not get better, then he could request to go to the clinic again. At this time, Ah Kong still appeared okay. He could eat, he could walk around.
Ah Kong took the medicine from this packet for 3-4 days. But his symptoms did not subside. His stomach still hurt, and it swelled to be slightly bigger than usual. When pressed, it felt hard. No one thought the swelling was out of the ordinary, since Ah Kong already had a belly. On Monday, 30 April, I made a request for Ah Kong to go back to the clinic. When he returned from the clinic, he said that they did the same as before. They asked him what was wrong, and they were going to send him back to the Zone just as before. But this time, Ah Kong could not bear it any longer. He was frantic, and said “Examine me! My stomach has hurt for many days. I have taken medication but it has not gotten any better. Without examining me, how will you know what is wrong?!!” So they examined him, and then in the evening he received another packet of medicine.
After Ah Kong took the second packet of medication, his pain still did not go away. His stomach grew larger, tauter, and very hard. At this point, P’Somyos (1), who had prior experience with liver disease, remarked to Ah Kong that it might be a symptom of a problem with his liver. When he heard this, Ah Kong began to be clearly anxious. He wept and said to me, “Why hasn’t it gone away? I am already suffering terribly. Just let me die!!” He uttered these words many times. I comforted him and told him not to worry, this week he would go to the Prison Hospital. I told him to hold on just a little bit longer. I encouraged him in the way that I had in every other moment. He was particularly encouraged by the news that Khun Anon (2) brought on Wednesday, 2 May, that he was trying to hasten the pardon application for Ah Kong and our other friends in cases under Article 112. That day, Khun Anon remarked that Ah Kong looked unwell. I asked Khun Anon to ask Ajarn Waan (3) for urgent help to arrange for Ah Kong to go to the Prison Hospital. Khun Anon did so. We believed that there were skillful doctors at the Prison Hospital who could make Ah Kong’s pain go away.
By Thursday, 3 May, Ah Kong’s condition was clearly deteriorating. He refused the rice porridge that we ordered and bought him daily. I gave him Vitamilk (4) to drink, so that he could take his medicine. After that, he went to sleep. At that time, it was very hot. I rubbed balm on his chest, back, and neck, to help him breathe more easily. And I fanned him continuously. He laid down, awaiting Aunty Oo’s daily visit. But that day, a strange thing happened. There was an announcement that Ah Kong’s family had come to visit. Every other time, Ah Kong would rush, almost running, to go pick up the slip to visit his family. But this time, we had to help him up. Ah Kong turned around and looked at my face. He looked like he was going to cry, and said to me, “Come with me, Num. Go with me. I am unable to walk on my own.” I had never heard this tone, or these words, from Ah Kong in the nearly 2 years that we had been together in the prison. I asked for permission from the guards to go with Ah Kong to the family meeting point so that he could see Aunty Oo. Then I wrote a note for him to give Aunty Oo telling her to call Ajarn Waan again about arranging for Ah Kong to go to the Prison Hospital. I asked Aunty Oo to buy drinkable yogurt and easy-to-digest fruit for Ah Kong also, so that he could eat when he felt unwell.
After their visit ended, Ah Kong and I met Aunty Oo in the area for receiving items sent from outside. I held my hand up to my ear, with my fingers in the sign of a telephone, to remind Aunty Oo and Aunty Noi (the wife of Surachai Sae Dan) to remember to call Ajarn Waan. Aunty Oo nodded in understanding. Then I pointed a finger at Ah Kong and then waved my hand to signal to her that she did not need to worry about him. After that, Ah Kong and I walked back to Zone.
Who knew that the meeting that day between Ah Kong and Aunty Oo would be their last? Who knew that this would be the last time that this couple, this husband and wife, who had watched over one another and supported each other for many years, met?
On the morning of Friday, 4 May, Ah Kong went to sleep in the cafeteria after his morning bath. Like the day before, he would not eat the rice porridge. I let him sleep, and prepared the Vitamilk to give to him. There was an announcement that Ah Kong was being sent to the Hospital that morning. I was happy because it meant that he would be able to see a doctor. The announcement for him to go came at 9 am. I woke Ah Kong up to drink the Vitamilk and put on clothes to go to the hospital. He did not drink even half of it before he said he could not drink any more. I helped him up in the cafeteria. I noticed that his eyes were very yellow. His stomach was still swollen and hard like before. I suggested that he sit in a wheelchair to go out, since he was no longer able to walk. He was pushed slowly out. This was my last glimpse of Ah Kong. I did not imagine that this parting would be our last, that we would never again meet.
The old man was disloyal?
After all of our conversations, I can assert that Ah Kong was neither yellow nor red. He wasn’t slim (5) either. He told me that he liked to go to different protests. The protests were fun and sometimes they gave out free food. The first protest he went to was one of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). He got a yellow shirt and an autograph from Chamlong Srimuang to take home. After that, he went to Red Shirt protests, and got a red shirt and a bandana cloth to tie around his head to take home. He did not have to pay for any of these things. Ah Kong spent most of his time taking his grandchildren to school and picking them up afterwards. He also helped Aunty Oo around the house. When he was done with these things, then he would go to the demonstrations. After 2-3 hours, when he was bored, he would take the bus home.
Ah Kong had no basic knowledge about politics. At home, he was not familiar with Red Shirt television. He never watched it. His vision was not very good, so he did not read the newspaper. All he did was take care of his grandchildren; this took up all of his time. This meant that when I and others talked about politics, Ah Kong listened carefully and often asked us questions.
Of interest, Ah Kong’s normal actions and what he was accused of doing – insulting the monarchy – were in serious conflict. For example, he raised his hands to wai the photograph of the king in Zone 8 every time he passed it. I am certain that he did so sincerely. Ah Kong also told me that he took his grandchildren to sign their names to wish the king well at Siriraj Hospital many times. Whenever he went shopping with his grandchildren and saw a table where one could sign to wish the king well, he and they did so. Every time. I could not believe that this old man was accused of being disloyal to the monarchy.
Anyone who met Ah Kong knew that he was a humble person. He always smiled, was quick to wai, and, certainly, was weepy. My personal take on this is that Ah Kong was a very emotionally fragile person. This was especially true during the periods of his imprisonment. He displayed his fragility clearly. Between the first period [during which the case was being investigated] when Ah Kong was brought in and was granted bail and released, and the second time when he returned to the prison [after he was charged and then convicted], it was very different for him in terms of his morale. It was fortunate that there were many people around to encourage him to keep going. Ah Kong was loved and cared for by people detained in Red Shirt cases and by other detainees as well. In truth, I told Ah Kong that he was like an exhausted battery. When he was downcast and desponded, we would talk and give him encouragement. He would start smiling again. He would raise his fist in “struggle” once again. But then, not even an hour would pass and he would be sad again. We had to charge him again. Continually. Urge him on, help him. We thought of him as family, just like our real family. So we looked after him.
Ah Kong could endure in prison purely by encouragement. His primary source of courage was Aunty Oo. We were the secondary support, his friends in the same Zone and the masses who stopped by to offer support. I cannot bear to think about the 4 days and 4 nights that Ah Kong was in the Prison Hospital without any encouragement. Without support, how much suffering could Ah Kong withstand? Is it possible that one cause of his sudden death was that he was deprived of support ….
The unjust actions of prison officials who said that they “loved the king”
I thought again and again about whether or not it was a good idea for me to write this. Finally, I decided that I had to write it. Because it is the truth of what happened to Ah Kong. From the broad overtures in the mainstream media of the accusation that the Red Shirts wanted to topple the monarchy to the concerted determination of some prison officials to persecute them, many of those accused in lèse majesté cases shared the same fate. This shared fate was to be threatened, physically and mentally attacked, and to suffer other kinds of persecution. Elderly men, like “Ah Kong,” were not exempt. Suriyan (6) and I were among the abused as had been reported in the alternative press. My sense is that it is imperative that people outside the prison know how Ah Kong was treated and what happened. (I take responsibility for every word I have written. I am ready for it to be examined – ready for it to be validated.)
But before going further, I have to note that at present, Zone 8 is the best zone in the prison. The difference from before is the difference between the sky and an abyss. The difference is because there was a change in the head of the Zone. The new head is a development worker who is impartial. He acts more justly than the person whose actions towards Ah Kong I explain in the account below.
Ah Kong was classified and placed in Zone 8. When Ah Kong arrived, Suriyan and I had already been physically attacked by those in the old administration. If those accused in lèse majesté and Red Shirt cases were placed in Zone 8, then they were kept in place by being slapped in the face and punched by other prisoners who were called to come do so. They were showered with obscenity and accused of being the people who burned the city. But Ah Kong was lucky. As an old person, he was granted an exception. He was not physically harmed. Instead, he was persecuted by being forced to work hard.
Given that Ah Kong was an elderly man, humanity and compassion should have meant that he received an exemption not to perform the same work as a young man, as if they were the same. But Ah Kong was a person who was intentionally selected to be in Zone 8 by its head (who today has been moved to administer the holding cells under the Criminal Court at Ratchada).
The first day that he arrived, Ah Kong was sent to be in the paper cup-making unit and received the usual amount immediately. It was 5 kilos of paper per day, or 2500 cups. Ah Kong definitely could not do it. But he was forced to do it. Other prisoners could not stand it, and took some of his work to do. Each person took a little bit until it was finished. Ah Kong worked like this the entire time until he was released on bail the first time.
Ah Kong returned into the prison for a second time. But this time, the head of the zone was afraid to take on any more 112 cases. Ah Kong was assigned to Zone 3, to separate him from me. But then, due to help from someone high-up, Khun Anon helped to arrange for Ah Kong to be transferred to Zone 8 with me again. The head of the zone was very displeased. Ah Kong was again sent to make paper cups. It was like the first time. Other prisoners helped Ah Kong as before. They helped him because they could not bear to see him persecuted by the head of the zone. Finally, with help from someone high-up, there was an order to immediately transfer Ah Kong to work in the library. He did not have to do anything there. The head of the zone lost a lot of face, because he was no longer able to do whatever he pleased to Red Shirt people.
Abhisit’s secretary, the judges, and the police who arrested him should be held responsible for the death of Ah Kong. The head warder in Zone 8 (who is not the current one) should be held culpable as well.
Finally, I mourn the loss of my friend of a different age. I loved and cared greatly for him. He was the same as an actual member of my family. It is certain that his death was not in vain. I want for Ah Kong, or old uncle as I called him, not to worry about me and his other friends. We will look after Aunty Oo and your grandchildren, who were beloved by you, so that they will have happiness. If there really is a next life, then let us return to meet one another again …I love you, uncle!! May you rest well and not worry about anything anymore.
(1) P’Somyos refers to Somyos Prueksakasemsuk, currently on trial for alleged violations of Article 112.
(2) Khun Anon refers to Anon Numpa, the lawyer-poet of Ratsadornprasong Legal Institute and counsel for Ah Kong, Tanthawut, and many other Red Shirt and lèse majesté cases.
(3) Ajarn Waan refers to Suda Rangkupan, lecturer in the Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn University and an advocate for the rights of political prisoners
(4) Vitamilk is fortified soymilk.
(5) “Slim” is a category of political stance that while neither red nor yellow, is explicitly and confidently unconcerned with democracy. It is a stance which claims to not be a political stance – yet in trying to make that assertion in a very politicized time, it precisely fails to succeed in that claim.
(6) Suriyan refers to Suriyan Kokpuey, who is currently serving a sentence in Bangkok Remand Prison for a February 2011 conviction under Article 112.