Lese majeste cons fight stigma

After doing a lot of soul-searching about their ordeal of being sent to jail for what they judge were innocuous crimes, a number of former political prisoners have decided to set up a network to pool their resources and tell their stories to the rest of society.

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A dozen lese majeste prisoners led by Thantawut Twewarodomgul and some 30 other former prisoners whose crimes ranged from petty charges to more serious ones due to their political activities have linked up under the Network of People Affected from Imprisonment in Political Conflicts After the Coup 2006 (NPAIPC).

"We've been striving to live in a society in which the political scene has changed from before we were imprisoned time. Economically and socially speaking, we've more or less been devastated too," said Mr Thantawut.

Known as "Noom Red Nont (Nonthaburi)", Mr Thantawut, who kept active behind bars by supporting other inmates, has been instrumental in bringing together the others to support released inmates.

Mr Thantawut was sentenced to 13 years for lese majeste and computer crimes. He was released on July 5 last year after 480 days in jail.

The network is following up on the efforts of relatives of lese majeste defendants and prisoners to try and get them released, Among them are Somyot Prueksakasemsuk and Surachai Danwattananusorn.

By the end of April, Somyot will have been behind bars in Bangkok Remand Prison for three years without bail having ever been granted. He's still waiting for an Appeal Court verdict.

Surachai, who was give a royal pardon in October, said efforts to release political prisoners through an amnesty have so far turned out to be disasterous to both the prisoners and the government they supported.

"The only practical way is to appeal for a royal pardon," said Mr Surachai, a member of the NPAIPC. 

He said any moves that could help give the former inmates a better life should be widely supported because they did not engage in certain activities for their own benefit.

Daeng Puanmool, 43, from Chiang Mai is also a member of the NPAIPC. He was released two months ago after being jailed for three years and eight months for attempted murder during the mayhem between the red and yellow shirts in 2008 during Somchai Wongsawad's premiership.

Mr Daeng once had a good career as a tour operator. But after his prison term, his wife left him and his two teenage children and mother are in financial trouble.

"I was then a red-shirt guard for Rak Chiang Mai 51. But the group did not help much in caring for me," said Mr Daeng during a trip to Bangkok this week.

It was not only the political groups he supported that were distant from him during his imprisonment, but the political party he leant towards as well.

Like other political prisoners, he got some assistance from individual activists who had close links to certain key figures of the Pheu Thai party.

Mr Daeng now makes cloth bags, stuffed toys, key chains and pins for a living.

Mr Thantawut and Mr Surachai are often invited to speak at forums. Mr Thantawut also has been producing pins using a Somsak Jeamteerasakul cartoon face drawn by Thongtouch Teparak with Somsak's signature on it.

"It's necessary that we have to help ourselves to stand on our feet financially. Certain civic groups have kindly helped us, but if we can't sell our products or get a web-related job or become a programmer with our expertise, our lives will be less secure," said Mr Thantawut.

He has also been busy documenting the lives of the former prisoners and trying to reach out to those in various corners of Thailand.

"Only former inmates can understand and access the former prisoners. We do need both understanding and support so that we can visit those still behind bars," said Mr Thantawut.

Currently, there are six lese majeste prisoners in Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima, another 23 at Lak Si Temporary Prison, and some 30 others nationwide.

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