Thailand: The Playwright and the Junta

Everything changed with the May 22, 2014, coup, Thailand’s 12th military takeover since the end of the absolute monarchy, in 1932. This time, a ...

Everything changed with the May 22, 2014, coup, Thailand’s 12th military takeover since the end of the absolute monarchy, in 1932. This time, a military junta calling itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) returned Thailand to dictatorship; its rule represented the most repressive regime the country had seen since the 1970s. The day after the coup, dissidents were ordered to report to the junta for “attitude adjustment,” public protest was outlawed, and prosecutions under Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code skyrocketed.

In some sense, the use of Article 112 was the most dangerous of these moves. “Whoever defames, insults, or threatens the king, queen, heir apparent, or regent,” it explains, “shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years.” A law designed to defend the monarchy (which still exists, and which the NCPO claimed to support) was applied indiscriminately, against anyone the military junta deemed a threat. And it was used against a Thai playwright who, after being imprisoned for two years, has written an extraordinary book that is now taking Thailand by storm.

The book is All They Could Do to Us, Prontip Mankhong’s memoir of her 744 days in the Central Women’s Prison in Bangkok. Prontip was arrested in the aftermath of the 2014 coup. Across 884 pages, she details her daily life behind bars, the intersections of her life with those of the women she meets in prison, and the special surveillance she faced as an Article 112 prisoner. The playwright’s specific plight, however, has become something larger: a story in which Thailand’s citizens, especially the growing numbers resisting the junta, can see themselves and their struggle.

Prontip was imprisoned for creating and performing in a play, The Wolf Bride, which was deemed to be insulting to the monarchy. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, established in 2014 to defend those targeted by the NCPO, at least 169 people have been prosecuted under Article 112 since the coup, with an almost 100 percent conviction rate. A taxi driver was prosecuted for a conversation with a passenger, an elderly man for bathroom graffiti, and many for social media posts. The longest sentence to date was given to a man named Wichai, who was accused of making seven anti-monarchy Facebook posts in 2015. He was initially sentenced to 70 years, or 10 years per post, but his sentence was reduced to 35 years, as he confessed to the crimes.

Prontip is perhaps the most famous of those prosecuted under Article 112. This might explain why her book is causing such a sensation. For example: on the last Sunday of this past June, several hundred readers, writers, and editors gathered in a bookshop in one of Bangkok’s glitzy shopping malls to celebrate a list of 19 new “Books You Ought to Read.” A panel of publishing luminaries spoke about the virtues of reading on paper, the importance of translation, and the power of a good book to lead readers into an unknown world. Each of them selected Prontip’s book as the top book that one “ought to read.”

All They Could Do to Us was published by Aan Press, a Thai literary publisher, in March 2019, on the eve of the first election since the coup. Since then, the initial thrill of the first election in five years has dissipated, as the military has made clear that it is willing to lie, cheat, and bend the law to hold on to power (even while providing the appearance of democracy).

And yet, despite widespread pessimism, Prontip’s book highlights something important happening in Thailand. The book offers an extraordinary window into the life of an artist who becomes a threat to national security and is consequently imprisoned, and its runaway success signals the radical transformation in Thai society in the five years since the coup.

Five years, in this case, is a long time. When Prontip was prosecuted, the military junta and the coup were supported by a majority of citizens. The only outcry against Prontip’s imprisonment came from within the small community of anti-coup activists. Today, support for the junta has faded, while Prontip’s story resonates with those who once believed they had nothing in common with her.

Prontip’s brilliance is that she has written a book that is at once a documentary account of what she endured under dictatorship and a general guide for how to survive repression. In prose alternately lyrical and stark, she narrates the story of her own life and imagines life for Thai society after dictatorship. The prison officials often seized her writing, but defiance powered her imagination to write and rewrite: “The seizure cannot stop us from writing, even though we do not know how we will send it out [of the prison]. They seize it and we will write it again. They seize it once more and we will write it once more.”

Perhaps the popularity of “All They Could Do to Us” indicates that Thai society, as a whole, is coming out of the coup’s shadow.

Prontip was born to cassava farmers in Phitsanulok, in northern Thailand. In 2009, while at university, she founded a group focused on dissident cultural production called Prakai Fai Kanlakorn (Sparking Fire Theater). The group took its work out of the rarefied space of the theater, performing over 40 plays in the streets, on protest stages, and in village halls. Emphasizing audience participation and improvisation, its plays focused on state violence and inequality. (Even after the breakup of Prakai Fai Kanlakorn, in 2012, Prontip and other members continued their cultural activism.)

Strangely enough, The Wolf Bride, the play that would ultimately lead to Prontip’s imprisonment, was performed before the military coup, in October 2013 (when Thailand still had a civilian government). It was part of a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the October 14, 1973, uprising in which citizens ousted an earlier military dictatorship. Staged alongside a range of events (including films, an academic conference on the uprising, and a Chinese opera about social struggle), The Wolf Bride was a satire about hierarchy (one that actually targeted senior activists within the pro-democracy movement).

But devotees of the monarchy believed Prontip’s play to be a rude parody of the king. In their view, this was a grave violation of Article 112. Members of a royalist vigilante group, the National Rubbish Collection Organization, filed complaints against Prontip and others on November 1, 2013. But at the time, Thailand’s democracy could not bring itself to arrest young people simply for performing a play, even one accused of insulting the monarchy.

Yet, within 14 months, everything had changed. The coup had taken place, and Article 112 violations were now being prosecuted aggressively. On February 23, 2015, Prontip and another Wolf Bride performer, Patiwat Saraiyaem, were sentenced to two years and six months in prison (reduced by half from five years, as they pleaded guilty) for violating Article 112 in their performance.

What those who locked Prontip up failed to realize was that prison would not silence her. From the moment she landed behind bars, she took the advice of a friend—a senior cultural activist named Ida Aroonwong, who went on to become her publisher—who told her to imagine that prison was a new theater, and to turn her experience into raw material.

Prontip writes in the first-person plural in All They Could Do to Us. She explains the use of “we” in her preface. When she was arrested, she writes, Prontip was accompanied by both a little demon, who urged her to challenge power, and a tiny bird, offering hope and freedom. She told the bird to fly away before she walked through the imposing prison gate. The demon, however, she took with her into the prison. Prontip’s “we,” therefore, means she and her demon, since they stayed together. And yet there is another, unspoken meaning of this “we,” as well as the “us” in the title: both represent all the Thais who have lived through the past five years of dictatorship.

The vast majority of the book—852 out of 884 pages—is a chronological narrative of Prontip’s life in prison, written after the fact. But there are 32 unnumbered pages inserted into the middle of the book, which contain fragile, urgent accounts written while she was in prison.

The story of these pages is told in the book: after an essay about her early prison days made it out (as a letter to her lawyer) and was published by the Thai independent media outlet Prachatai, the authorities forbade her to write and seized her materials. Prontip then had to devise inventive hiding places, as well as ways to sneak her notes out of the prison.

The unnumbered pages contain actual-size facsimiles of this clandestine writing. The reader must either squint or use a magnifying glass to read her minuscule handwritten accounts: cruelty from wardens, fear about what would happen next, and her tremendous dreams and desires.

In June 2019, as the bookstore seminar on the “Books You Should Read” came to a close, each panelist was asked to name their own favorites on the list of 19 finalists. They all chose All They Could Do to Us.

“I really despise this book. This book should not exist in Thai society,” said the essayist and interviewer Worapoj Panpong. “No one should be locked up merely for their words. You perform, you act in a play, and then go to jail. I loathe it. I feel terrible about how the book came to be.” And then he exhorted everyone present to read it.

The final words of the event came from the author herself. Since she was not able to attend, Prontip sent Ploy, one of the women she met in prison, to read a letter from her. Prontip asked:

Is there anything more pleasing than meeting a character from a book? Even if you did not like the character, it is at least still exciting. … Moreover, every one of [the women I met in prison] is not merely a character. They were an important part of collecting, hiding, protecting, and passing on the fragments of my memories. Tiny little pieces of paper were concealed and smuggled out by those seen to be insignificant [in society] and slowly, slowly retrieved after I was released, until they turned into this very thick book. … They, every one of the characters, will walk out of that dark hole. They are walking out of there. … We are awaiting only a few more.

Prontip is still waiting for those she met in prison to walk free. But perhaps the popularity of All They Could Do to Us indicates that Thai society, as a whole, is coming out of the coup’s shadow. icon

Featured image source: Prontip Mankhong / Prachatai