BANGKOK – Thai Nationals would seem to have good reason these days to question the generals who have been running the country since staging a coup in May 2014.
They might ask why the junta would have appointed a committee to draft a constitution reflecting its plan for a faux democracy, then induced another council they set up to vote it down, forcing a restart of the process. Thais could wonder, too, why the country’s economy remains stagnant, or why the regime has been so sluggish in responding to a terrorist bombing in central Bangkok last month.
Anyone who asks those sensible questions, however, is likely to be deemed in need of an “attitude adjustment” by the generals’ increasingly erratic leader, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
“Attitude adjustment” is a method employed by Thailand’s ruling military junta to neutralize its critics and opponents. Those “invited” for attitude adjustment are detained without charge and interrogated, with settings ranging from vacation- to detention-like facilities. Treatment ranges from effusive politeness to terse language; from being kept in a military camp where you can walk around and play sports to being detained in a small room with no vista to the world, depending on your learning curve toward the attitude adjustment process.
These are some of the things I remember best during my second round of attitude adjustment under the military junta, also known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). My crime was tweeting and posting comments questioning the legitimacy of the NCPO and its leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is also prime minister, for which I was detained from September 13 to 15, 2015.
After being blindfolded and taken in a nondescript van on an hour-and-a-half journey out of Bangkok, with some four men in black short-sleeved shirts wearing surgical masks, I was deposited in a 4-by-4 meter cell. All the paneless wooden windows, with iron bars, were shut tight and the ventilation outlets in the adjoining tiny toilet and shower area were covered from the outside with brown paper. The cell had a non-functioning mobile air-conditioner that went no lower than 29 degrees Celsius, a CCTV that stared at me from a corner of the ceiling, a hazy TV set, and several small bottles of water. There were no cracks to let in the sun or air, and the cell was locked from outside.
I was told to knock if I wanted anything, and that I would be told of my “program” the following day.
Unlike the mid-ranking or senior officers I had encountered in my first attitude adjustment session, the four men in charge, who worked in shifts of two at a time, were always terse, always sported a surgical mask and were always in civilian clothes. They only spoke or answered me when it was absolutely necessary.
In the morning of day two, after barely being able to eat the breakfast given to me by the guards, I begged to be taken outside for some fresh air, citing the lack of ventilation inside the cell.
The stern guards reluctantly obliged. They first got me to sit facing away from the door so I couldn’t see what was outside. They then blindfolded me and guided me outside for some “fresh air”. I was allowed to stay outside the cell for 20 minutes – always blindfolded – and gulp what air I could from the outside door they had left open.
After a few outings like this, one guard complained that I was being too demanding, to which I said I was only asking for air, which is free, and not a bottle of Coke.
My exercise routine consisted of taking four steps, turning and taking another two, or vice-versa since that was what the room’s size allowed. I soon realized that this was just depleting more precious oxygen at an even faster pace, and so abandoned it after less than 30 minutes.
Later in the evening, after spending some 20 hours without proper human interaction, an officer who introduced himself as a lieutenant came in for a chat. He asked if there was anything he could do for me. I asked for some sunshine, fresh air, and perhaps some soap, shampoo, and washing powder.
He granted me some air by leaving the door to my cell open – provided I faced the other way. As for sunshine – it was never granted.
Before I was blindfolded on the first day at an Army camp in Bangkok, some six Army officers – ranging from mid- to senior rank – interrogated me. They wanted to know things like my nickname, details about my parents, their profession, my siblings, my political network, my address, and so on. They also asked why I was against the coup and critical of the lese majeste law. The interrogation lasted about six hours.
When I told them that I was not a supporter of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, they wanted to know what group I belonged to. All I could say was that things can’t be just black and white.
They may have expected an apology from me regarding what I said about their leader, Prayut, but I did not offer any. Instead, I told them that everything they asked can be answered rationally without an apology.
The interrogators wanted to peruse my smartphone, but I told them I left it with a United Nations (UN) officer for safekeeping. They appeared upset. Some even said this implied that I was not sincere or innocent and asked why I left it with UN staff.
I replied that since the junta leader possesses absolute power under Article 44 of the junta-sponsored interim constitution, it would only be wise to deposit my phone with a UN staff member who obviously does not operate under the Thai military junta’s rules. I added, however, that I was willing to ring the man up and ask him to come to see us and demonstrate the content of the phone. They didn’t seem to like my answer. After a while, they seemed to have decided it might not be the wisest idea to drag the UN into the fiasco.
By the end of day three, I was blindfolded again and driven back to the First Army Division headquarters in Bangkok. The No. 2 boss of the division, General Asawin Chaemsuwan, eventually walked in with half a dozen uniformed men in attendance.
I had met this general earlier on two occasions. Both times, he had warned me against being too expressive about the controversial lese majeste law.
“I will not give you a red card yet, because we’re all Thais,” he said, using a soccer analogy to refer to the “yellow card” warning that I had been given during my first “adjustment” session immediately after the coup in May last year. Apparently, my “crime” did not warrant the equivalent of a full ejection from a soccer pitch.
However, Asawin warned that the charge – which I later found to be sedition – would proceed if I breached the “contract” by joining, assisting, or leading an anti-coup movement or by “crossing the line” in my criticism of the junta. A sedition charge carries a maximum penalty of seven years.
I then asked the general and the half dozen mid-ranking officers about how long this “contract” would last. What was the statute of limitations? They replied that it was 15 years. “Would the NCPO be long gone by then?” I asked. The question went unanswered.
The general then changed the subject by mentioning two locations and asking me if I lived at either of them. Obviously they had been tracking my whereabouts via my phone’s GPS.
He then bade me farewell, before one of his men escorted me home.
“I wish we don’t have to meet again,” the old general said before leaving. Oddly enough, I found myself thinking of him as a kind and considerate man. I realized I may have developed a mild Stockholm syndrome, as I was relieved to see him.
By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Pravit Rojanaphruk was a senior reporter and columnist with Thailand’s The Nation Newspaper for 23 years. He resigned from the post a day after he was released from detention.