A Thai Lese Majeste Victim Talks

Naturalized US citizen Joe Gordon, born in Thailand under the name Lerpong Vichaikhammart, was charged with lese-majeste in 2011 for translating a banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and sentenced to two-and-a-half years imprisonment after he returned to Bangkok as a tourist. He was freed by royal pardon and deported in July of 2012. He spoke in Los Angeles with regular Asia Sentinel contributor Pavin Chachavalpongpun on March 24. This is a record of that conversation.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun: Since returning to the US, what have you been doing?

Joe Gordon: I am in the process of readjustment. After the horrific experience of Thai prison life, I am still troubled, and the fact that I never received justice has been playing on my mind. The problem is with Article 112 (lese-majeste law); it allows virtually anyone to file a complaint against others willy-nilly. I was not aware that someone had filed a complaint against me.

More importantly, the Thai judges, the ones that would consider the charges against me, were politicised. They never considered bail in my case. Still today, these experiences are traumatising and reflect the uncivilized actions surrounding the lese-majeste issue. After release from prison on 10 July 2012, I immediately returned to the US and have been undergoing gradual rehabilitation, both physically and mentally.

Pavin: Any plan to return to Thailand?

Gordon: I travelled to Thailand as an American tourist having in my possession an American passport. But when I was arrested, the Thai authorities claimed that I was still a Thai citizen. In other words, they forced “Thainess” on me. The Thai judicial process seriously lacks standards. As long as there exists the lese-majeste law, Thailand will remain undemocratic. Article 112 takes away your freedom of expression. It does not allow frank opinion on the Thai monarchy. Instead, it creates a climate of fear over the people.

Pavin: Your views on the lese-majeste law?

Gordon: If Thailand wishes to become a civilized nation, it has to abolish this anachronistic law. The world has changed. And Thailand is no longer been under absolute monarchy. The Thai monarchy will have to act as prescribed by the constitution. It will need to adjust itself to the changing political and social circumstances. The British monarchy has survived mainly because it has learned how to live with democracy. Furthermore, the budget for the monarchy must be transparent and accountable. And since members of the royal family are public figures, they must be open to criticism.

Glorification of the monarchy has long taken place in Thailand; it is unrealistic and a fabrication. Other institutions which have forged intimate ties with the monarchy will need to adapt themselves too. For example, the judiciary, known to serve as an instrument of the monarchy, is also in crisis. As long as they are not ready to live with a new reality, Thailand’s true democratisation will not take place.

Pavin: Your views on the Red-Shirt movement in the US?

Gordon: I wish the Red Shirts in Los Angeles would work more closely together so as to increase their voice and potential. Yet they have done their job well in terms of raising awareness about the political situation in Thailand. I hope there will be more activities among the red shirts here and I am happy to participate.

On my part, I will continue to campaign for the abolition of the lese-majeste law through social networks, such as through my own Facebook page. I hope it will spotlight problems with the law, both for Thais and the greater world at large. After 14 months in prison, it is impossible for me to remain silent on these issues.

Pavin: Conditions in prison?

Gordon: Terrible. Thai prisons are fetid and decrepit; they have been run down for years and are in a state of decay. Doctors are usually unavailable and while on the premises, they usually refuse to attend to the needs of prisoners. They treat prisoners far worse that they treat animals. Moreover, officers show prejudice, particularly against those charged with lese-majeste, and they are mistreated, badly.

After a number of Red Shirts complained to (the Prime Minister) Yingluck Shinawatra government about the appalling prison conditions, there was a slight improvement with some areas of prisons upgraded. Physical abuse against prisoners also subsided. I myself reject the idea of separating those who are political prisoners from those charged with lese-majeste. But this call has so far been unsuccessful. Today, prisoners charged with 112 are placed in the same cells as other criminals. Jails are overcrowded. We have to live cheek by jowl with those suffering from AIDS and Tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases.

Pavin: Any assistance from the US government?

Gordon: Since I came back to the US, I have had no contact from the American authorities. However, in the process of being emancipated, the American Embassy in Bangkok looked after me well. While I was in prison, officers from the US Embassy visited me regularly, and the visits increased towards my last days in jail. They followed up the petition for a royal pardon.

Once released, I was picked up by the Embassy officers in the middle of the night to avoid media attention. They wanted me to depart Thailand as quickly as possible. As I was waiting for my departure, I was placed in a “safe house”, mainly to have a full medical check up. The Embassy officers eventually saw me off at the airport. They wanted to be sure that I actually left Thailand and not harassed by anyone. I flew on United Airlines. At the point, the mission of the US Embassy had ended.

Pavin: How do you see the role of academics in the 112 abolition campaign?

Gordon: I admire them for their courage in making their position clear regarding the lese-majeste law and the role of the monarchy in politics. But the push from the academic community alone is insufficient. We need mass support to bring about real change. We still lack a leader who would rally support and transform abstract calls into practice. But as I said, I am glad to observe the courageous role of academics who offer their knowledge and take up responsibilities, particularly while expressing their views without fear.

(Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a former Thai diplomat and is now an associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, Japan. This also appeared in the Australian scholarly website New Mandala)