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Thailand: Free Somyot Prueksakasemsuk!

September 17, 2011 -- Australia Asia Worker Links reports that jailed trade union activist Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was denied bail on September 12. Somyot is in jail for allegedly insulting the Thai king, under the country's notorious lèse majesté law.

The new Thai government, headed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai Party, has jailed three people under lèse majesté law since coming to power two months ago. The Pheu Thai Party campaigned in the recent election campaign as the party of democracy and freedom,.

The campaign to free Somyot and all other Thai political prisoners continues. The background to the case is explained by the following article, gleaned from the posts at The Librarian of Bangkok Prison.

Who is Somyot Prueksakasemsuk?

On September 20, 1961. Somyot Pruksakasemsuk was born into a Chinese-Thai family with altogether seven siblings. His keen interest in politics was noted when he was young. In his junior high school student shorts, he tagged along his older brother to join the demonstrations during the October 14, 1976, uprising for democracy. It planted a seed of democracy in him keeping his yearning for social justice always alight.

During the October 6 uprising in 1979, three years later, still a secondary school student at Debsirin, he participated in political activities in full scale with his friends from technical colleges.

After completing his education at Debsirin, he went to Ramkhamhaeng University. In 1981, he started his student activism with the Ramkhamhaeng Student Group for Labour Issue Study. An avid activist while at Ramkhamhaeng, he dedicated himself to fighting for human rights and justice. He joined the Seree Tham Group and organised activities for workers in factories and grassroots communities. It was aimed at engendering awareness on civilian rights and liberties and democracy along. He was also writing prolifically then. 

He was one of the earlier unionists in Thailand trying to unionise workers, training them on legal knowledge, organising camp activities for the workers, organising public demonstrations to oppose dictatorial rule, etc.

He was very active in Phra Pra Daeng industrial zones in Samut Prakan covering Thai Garment Labour Union, Textile Promotion Labour Union, Thai Kriang Labour Union, Pipat Labour Relations Union, Century Labour Union, Metro Labour Union, most of which were involved with textile, garment, steel and metal industries. 

In 1984, Somyot joined the Union for Civil Liberties (UCL) as a staff member and volunteer to promote labour rights. In the same year, UCL focused on Om Noi and Om Yai as its main project sites and embarked on organising training on labour law, setting up labour clinics, supporting association and unionisation among the workers, since workers in these areas got lower pay and lesser benefits than other workers.

In 1986, he joined the Young Christian Workers (YCW) as a full-time staff member. The NGO advocated the organisation of young workers. Somyot got to learn how the workers lived their lives, and planned together with them for schemes to better their livelihood. An NGO with international networks in Asia, Europe and America, YCW had members from factories in Phra Pra Daeng and Bang Pli, Samut Prakan and Ransit, Pathumthani. As coordinator and staff member, Somyot was instrumental in the campaigns for social security law promoting the organisation and education among union members.

In 1991, after the seizure of power by the National Peace Keeping Council (NPKC) from the civilian government led by Prime Minister General Chartchai Chunhawan, Somyot and his colleagues started the Project to Train Workers on Documentation and Information. With support from activist friends domestically and abroad, his project developed later into the Center for Labour Information Service and Training (CLIST), with the aims to:

  1. Train and raise awareness of workers on their rights.
  2. Promote the organisation of workers to increase their bargaining power and to effectively demand improvement of working condition to enhance their quality of life.
  3. Advocate democratic unionisation.
  4. Promote the roles and organisation of women workers and women leaderships.
  5. Advocate amendments to the labour law to better protect labour rights and benefits and to help protect their rights when their rights are disrespected or violated.
  6. Train and provide other educational activities to help workers be aware of their rights.
  7. Promote organisation among the workers so that they can use it to increase their leverage to demand the improvement of working condition and enhance their quality of life.

For more than a decade at CLIST, Somyot fought together with workers and labour movements and their many demands have been met. For example, the enactment of Social Security Act, 90 day-maternity leave, an increase of child support allowances, support and solidarity given to particular labour movements, such as the Kader workers, Thai-Belgium workers, Eden Group workers, etc., until they could get severance pay higher than the amount prescribed by law.

In addition, CLIST under Somyot’s management also gave fervent support to help women workers form the Women Workers for Freedom Group, the formation of the Chemical Workers Unions Alliance (CWUA) and the Alliance of Democratic Trade Unions (ADTU). Due to budget problem, CLIST had to terminate all activities in May 2007 after 16 years (1991-2007) under the directorship of Somyot.

Somyot’s published works on political and labour issues include:

  • Unemployment Benefit (Social Security): The hope of employees and unemployed workers
  • The meaning and value of labour union
  • Collective Bargaining and Negotiation   
  • An exposé of Thaksin
  • Under the evil rule 

His inspiration to work on labour issue stems from his experience working in a Volvo car factory. He chose to work there for a short stint in order to learn how difficult the life of a worker was and later produced a manual on how the workers can propose their demands. His easy-to-read manual also helps the workers understand how they are put under exploitative environment and how the economic rent has been stolen from them. 

With the closure of CLIST, Somyot turned to journalism, which he has been keen on and became editor of Siam Parithat (Siam Review). 

After the coup on September 19, 2006, Somyot joined the movement to oppose the Council for Democratic Reform (CDR), the coup maker. He joined the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship, which has later developed into the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and later became part of the second batch of its core members. 

While mobilising against the September 19 coup, Somyot formed the 24th of June for Democracy Group in early June 2007, during the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of democracy in Thailand. The 24th of June for Democracy Group aims to (1) disseminate information and instil the spirit of democracy in general public, (2) mobilise people from all walks of life to against any form of dictatorship, (3) collaborate with civic organisations inside and outside the country to promote democratic society for justice, rights, liberties and equality in society. 

Although Somyot was part of the second batch of the core members of UDD, in May 2007 he quit from the role and ceased to be a UDD leader and has not been involved with any activity by UDD.  

On May 24, 2010, Somyot was arrested on a warrant. He was held in custody together with assistant professor Suthachai Yimprasert, from the faculty of arts at Chulalongkorn University. They were arrested as alleged offenders under Section 11(1) of the Emergency Decree on Government Administration in States of Emergency B.E. 2548 (2005), which allows the arrest and detention of "a person suspected of having a role in causing the emergency situation, or being an instigator, making the propagation, a supporter of such act or concealing relevant information relating to the act which caused the State of Emergency”.

When he was arrested, he was editor of the Voice of the Downtrodden. He wanted to make the magazine a mouthpiece for the lower class, the people whose voices are not heard in society, so that they can convey their feeling and needs. His professional journalism has always been steered toward the candid portrayal political, economic and social issues. 

On June 12, 2010, the court dismissed the request by Center for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES) to extend the detention of Somyot for the third time claiming that there was no necessity to hold him in custody as the unrest has been put out and therefore he should be released. He was released after being in detention for 19 days.

Somyot was charged under draconian lese majeste law after he was arrested and imprisoned without rights to bail on April 30, 2011. After being detained for 84 days, he was brought to court and charged on  the August 25, 2011.

Comments

Help for Thai Workers

I’ve lived in Thailand for several years and haven’t seen many articles that go in-depth into the lives of labor activists. Being a foreigner working in Thailand is good – we get relatively high pay, generally work less hours than Thais, and are usually able to negotiate flexible leave time. It wasn’t until I’d worked in Thailand for one year that I realized how different the situation was for Thais working for the same employers. My Thai colleagues and students often complain about how different Thais and foreigners are treated at work. The CLIST goals would help Thais and help to change employment law in Thailand. People of every country should be made aware of their rights as workers and have a good understanding of labor laws. Now that Somyot is in trouble, it will be good to see someone else step up as a strong advocate for the CLIST goals.

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