I’ve just heard the news that Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of the news site Prachatai, has been arrested at Bangkok’s main international airport, apparently on charges of insulting the Thai monarchy. In March, Chiranuch spent nearly four hours in a cage beneath a Bangkok courtroom while her bail was approved on previous charges under Thailand’s Cyber Crimes Act. I first met her the following month, after the deadly “Black Saturday” clashes between Red Shirt anti-government protesters in Bangkok. Here is my account of that meeting:
Not long after Black Saturday, I met a Thai woman so dangerous that the Thai state is trying to put her behind bars for the rest of her natural life. We met on Silom Road, near the Rajaprasong protest site. A few nights before, I had watched a mob hurl rocks, bottles and abuse at Red Shirt barricades. Then five M-79 grenades had exploded amid the crowd. One person was killed and dozens injured. The government and the Red Shirts blamed each other, and the perpetrators were never found.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn doesn’t look very dangerous. She is a short, slightly plump woman of 43 who runs an independent news website called Prachatai. She is also one of first Thais to be prosecuted under the Cyber Crimes Act. Her offence? Someone made an oblique but unflattering comment about a member of the Thai royal family on Prachatai’s webboard, and Chiranuch didn’t remove it quickly enough. If convicted of all ten counts against her, she faces 50 years in jail. Prachatai — the name means “free people” — has been shut down.
“The internet is about openness,” says Chiranuch. “It opens minds. That’s what democracies need. But in Thailand the internet has become a battleground, just like the streets.” Chiranuch’s trial began the following month. She says she’s nervous, but doesn’t seem so. “Thailand has to admit that it’s not a real democracy,” she says quietly. “We cannot talk freely about many things.”
Meanwhile, chaos spreads. As I write, there are more clashes, more deaths, more injuries. Elsewhere in Thailand, Red Shirts shut down city halls and obstruct military personnel and equipment bound for the capital. The Yellow Shirts have reappeared to demand the army declare martial law. In Bangkok, grenade attacks and drive-by shootings — usually at night, on government or military buildings — are now so frequent I barely register them. There is talk of civil war, rumors of another military coup.
Is Thailand growing up or falling apart? It is too early to tell. But the old stereotype of Thais — simple, fun-loving, apolitical, as loyal as Labradors — is shattered forever. Chiranuch is relieved. “We’ve woken up from a fairytale,” she says. Then we walk together down Silom Road, past coils of razor wire and shuttered shops and soldiers with assault rifles, towards whatever kind of Thailand comes next.