The king and us

18 04 2012

That’s the title of an article at Global Labour University, where Ian Graham writes about “Why Thailand’s lèse majesté law matters to unions and the world” with reference to the case of Somyos Prueksakasemsuk. He begins:

“Union rights are human rights.” That has been said loud and often. But it bears repeating….Philosophically, core human rights such as freedom of association have always underpinned core labour rights.

We seldom hear the equation put the other way round: “Human rights are union rights”. And yet it is just as true. A place that disregards any of the basic human rights is a place that trade unions will find irksome.

… As the ILO’s Karen Curtis told the 4th Assembly for Human Rights in 2006, “the right to express opinions freely, to hold assemblies and public meetings, to exercise these rights in full freedom and security of person, are nothing less than the basic civil liberties, without which the exercise of trade union rights is rendered meaningless”.

He then turns to Thailand, perceiving the “close links between labour rights, democracy and civil liberties” as bound together in the long imprisonment and lese majeste trial Somyos.

Somyos has long campaigned for labor rights in a country that has long suppressed workers and their collective organizations. Not unrelated, he has also been a political activist.

Graham points out that Somyos has been jailed, on remand, for almost a year on charges that he insulted the king by the “publication and dissemination” of two articles in the Voice of Taksin magazine:

The charge sheet (a PDF) alleges that he thereby “dared to defame, insult, or threaten His Majesty King Bhumipol Adulyadej of the Kingdom of Thailand”. The full texts of the two articles are included in the charge sheet…. Expert witnesses have testified that they do not refer to the King. Certainly, it would take quite some imagination to find any threats or insults to the monarchy in what was written.

Graham then asks a critical question: “So why has Somyot been in jail for almost a year?” His answer is:

The plain truth is that he is rather well known to the Thai authorities. Now aged 50, he joined the Thai labour movement as a teenager. He and other students used the technique of taking jobs in the country’s burgeoning export industries. There, they could get to know the young workers who were moving in from the impoverished rural areas, listen to their concerns, talk to them about trade unionism, and gather information about pay, safety and discipline in the export plants. As part of the student movement, Somyot was also active in the … democracy [movement] in Thailand. And he set up a national campaign for maternity rights.

In the 1980s, his organising work took a significant new turn when he founded the Centre for Labor Information Service and Training (CLIST). This provided much-needed training and advice for local unions in the industrial zones of the Bangkok region. Its work benefited unions in sectors ranging from the auto industry to chemicals, garments, diamonds and energy. CLIST cooperated with both national and international labour confederations, building up a well-respected network of activists and campaigns. Somyot also put his organising experience at the service of unions in other newly industrialising countries.

In 2005, he fulfilled a lifelong ambition when he launched a left-wing publishing company. Among other things, it produced paperbacks about the Thai labour movement. As part of the company’s dissemination work, he also organised a series of public debates and seminars, as well as making use of online forums and blogs to engage people on issues of Thai politics, labour and social justice. On the political side, he has been active in the Thai Democratic Party.

In other words, Somyos is charged with lese majeste because he is a left-wing activist and organizer.

The article then discusses the sham trial that has painstakingly “put Somyot under great physical and psychological pressure” that PPT reckons amounts to torture: refusing bail, dragging him across the country, treating him as a common criminal when he is a political prisoner, and shackling and caging him.


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