31 March 2012
As Somyot Pruksakasemsuk shuffled into the court room in central Thailand on January 16 dragging leg chains across the wooden floor, I saw the same warmth in the greeting that I had seen 30 years earlier.
Somyot was the first Thai person I ever met – then he had been organising Thai factory workers near Bangkok and I was arriving for a meeting of workers from throughout the Asia region.
Knowing that I was a factory worker myself (and later a postal worker) he had taken me when I visited to meet Thai factory workers and been my guide and translator. He would take me out to eat, made sure I had suitable accommodation and encouraged me to help Thai workers learn some basic English.
Somyot also took me to a workers’ centre where I was invited to plant what is still known eight years later as ‘The New Zealand tree’.
Somyot visited New Zealand in 1994 with a young woman factory worker who had survived the Kader Toy Factory fire in which 188 mainly women workers had died.
The young woman told us through Somyot’s translation that before she jumped four floors to the concrete below she thought about her friends in the factory, she thought about her mother, and she thought about the Buddha. Then she jumped. She survived only because she landed on the bodies of the other young women who had jumped before her.
On this visit to Thailand it was my turn to be a friend to Somyot.
On January 16 Somyot was attending his one-day-a-month trial facing a charge of lese majeste or criticising the monarchy, a serious crime in Thailand. Information about Somyot’s case and the international campaign to seek his release can be found on websites such as this.
Somyot’s January trial was in Nakorn Sawan province. In November he had had to go to Petchaboon in North East Thailand. Later he goes to Songkla in the far south of Thailand. He will not be in court in Bangkok where his case is based until April.
At the end of the morning’s short hearing Somyot was able to greet and talk with his wife, friends and supporters who overflowed the small courtroom.
Somyot has no chance of bail and faces a 15 to 30-year jail sentence if a guilty verdict is returned.
During the hearing and an appeal from his lawyer to have his case transferred back to Bangkok, Somyot explained to the judge that he was being moved from jail to jail for one-day hearings in different provinces and even the prison administration said he was the only prisoner being moved in such a way.
His lawyer said that in 20 years’ experience he had never known a prisoner to be moved around provincial jails in this way.
I went to Somyot’s court hearing to show my support for a longtime and loyal friend whose commitment to social justice has made my life richer.
It was my turn to offer friendship and support to Somyot.
John Maynard is a member of the Postal Workers Union of Aotearoa/New Zealand