Monday, February 14, 2005

Thailand's Hilltribe Prisoners

Sakhon Kirikamsukh died at 1 a.m. on 13th January 2005 at Youth Central Prison in Pathumthani just north of Bangkok. He was a 29-year-old Akha man from Doi Chang, Chiangrai Province serving a life sentence for drugs.

Together with many other prisoners Sakhon had been transferred from Bangkwang Central Prison, block 1, a few months previously.

Conditions at the new facility are reported to be even worse than at notorious Bangkwang. Sakhon had suffered a long time from a stomach ulcer, but otherwise had appeared to be healthy. However, he had no visitors and was very homesick.

There is some concern about 38-year-old Rassamee Wannasan, whose Akha name is Mee Ju Maw Po Ku, from Maesai in Chiangrai Province. She was taken to Klong Prem Prison Hospital with a stomach problem in early October 2004. She later returned to Lard Yao women's prison, but as of mid-January 2005 she was back in hospital again. Mee Ju is serving a life sentence for heroin.

Ah Naung Cher Mue, a 30-year-old Akha woman, died with AIDS at Lard Yao women's prison on 23rd April 2004. Ah Ba Yer Sor, another 30-year-old Akha woman, died at the same prison probably with TB on 6th April 2003.

Bu Yuen Cher Mue, a 35-year-old Akha man from Maechan in Chiangrai Province, died in Bangkwang Prison hospital on 26th December 2003 after being diagnosed with HIV.

These are just a few cases which reveal serious health problems for hilltribe prisoners in Thai prisons. TB and HIV are of particular concern, but many prisoners have stomach problems due to poor food and dirty water.

There are woefully inadequate doctors and medical facilities for prisoners, who are anyway expected to pay for medicines. Hilltribe prisoners held in facilities far from home are usually not visited or supported by their relatives or friends at all, as they are often too poor, and may not even have papers enabling them to travel in Thailand.

Another concern at this time is the cold weather in northern Thailand where hilltribe prisoners at Chiangrai Central Prison have died in previous years from the cold. Prisoners sleep on the floor, and are expected to provide, or pay for, their own bedding.

Law Reforms Needed

Last year there was much hope for a widely publicised Queen's amnesty for prisoners on 12th August 2004, Queen Sirikit's 72nd birthday. However, there was a bureacratic mix-up, and few prisoners were actually released. Some who fulfilled certain conditions received reduced sentences. The King, on his 5th December 2004 birthday, apparently had no good news for prisoners.

Horrendously long sentences in Thailand, especially for drugs cases, mean that prisoners put a lot of hope in Royal amnesties or pardons. For many it´s their only hope of seeing the outside world again. However, there are some indications that the Thai government is considering law reforms to bring sentences more in line with those in western countries.

Following Taksin Shinawatra´s overwhelming election victory on 6th February, his government now has the ability to carry out needed law reforms. The burgeoning prison population of 300,000 or more is a strain both on Thai correctional facilities and officials, as well as on prisoners who suffer inhuman conditions. It is hoped that sentences will be reduced, especially for drugs cases, and that the death penalty will be abolished.

Tawn Luang Sae Tein is a Yao man from Klong Lan in Kamphaeng Phet Province. He is in Klong Prem Central Prison in Bangkok with a 25-year sentence for drugs. His 32-year-old wife, Khet Fei Sae Tein, is in the nearby Lard Yao women's prison with a life sentence in the same case. She received a longer sentence because she pleaded innocent, while her husband pleaded guilty and says his wife is innocent.

Many hilltribe people, and others, in Thailand are confronted with this choice of pleading guilty so as to receive a reduced sentence. When this can mean the difference of the death penalty or life, it requires much courage to plead innocence and stand up for truth and justice. The system especially works against poor, oppressed hilltribe people in Thailand who do not have the resources to defend themselves. It is all the more unjust when it is openly admitted that corruption is rife among police, judiciary and officials in Thailand.

Two Akha women, Nong Khrang Kavin, whose Akha name is Mee Taw Cher Mue, and Mee Yo Mah Yer, were both sentenced to death although they plead their innocence in the same drugs case. They are awaiting their appeal. They are both in Lard Yao women's prison in Bangkok, far from their homes and families.

Hilltribe Prisoner Transfers, Change of Prison Directors

Many hilltribe prisoners have been transferred between prisons since mid-2004. Bangkwang had a terribly overcrowded inmate population of about 7,000 in early 2004. About 10% were hilltribe men, a disproportionately large number compared with the approximate 2% of the general Thai population who are hilltribe minorities. An official plan to reduce Bangkwang inmates to 5,000 had lowered the number to 5,403 as of late December 2004.

By September 2004, due to planned renovations all prisoners were moved from Bangkwang block number 5, where many hilltribe men were previously held. Some ended up at the Youth Central Prison in Pathumthani where Sakhon died on 13th January. As of mid-January, block 1 at this apparently new facility held 45 Hmong, 27 Akha, 20 Karen, 10 Lahu and 3 Leesaw hilltribe men amongst its inmates. Figures from other blocks are not known. The director´s name is Marootta Pantong.

The new director at Bangkwang since mid-2004 is Sowpon Gititammupak, who was previously posted at Bombat Prison.

There was also a new director posted in mid-2004 at Lard Yao women´s prison. Her name is Ang Hka Nueng Leib Nak.

In 2003 the director of Klong Prem Central Prison, Reung Muengmunechai, was removed from his post and put under investigation for graft. He was replaced by Prayad Jingjitt from Nakhon Ratchasima.

Prison System Corruption Hits Poor Hilltribe People Hardest

Prisoners are extremely reluctant to speak about labour exploitation in Thai prisons due to the fear of reprisals. However, those without money or outside support are effectively forced to work, because nothing is free in Thai prisons. Prisoners must even pay for the privilege of not working, and pay for materials to clean cells.

Inmates are often not paid, or receive only a pittance for the work they do. This is usually insufficient to pay for decent food, soap and toothpaste at inflated prison prices. Many prisoners run up debts, which can cause serious problems.

The reasons for this atrocious situation can be explained by the follwoing four points: 1. A lack of sufficient government funding to run prisons. This is partly due to the traditional system in Thailand whereby government officials paid the King for their positions, which then allowed them to levy whatever they could from the general populace. Such a system is bound to cause hardship to the poor, who have nowhere to turn for justice and human rights. 2. There has been a recent rapid rise in the prison population in Thailand without a corresponding rise in government funding for prisons. 3. Diversion of funding by officials for purposes other than prisoner facili ties and welfare. 4. Commercial deals between prison officials and business people to exploit captive prison labour.

Taksin Shinawatra likes to proclaim that Thailand is not a poor country, and that it does not need foreign assistance or aid. His government claims to be helping poor Thai farmers and rural people. However, there are very many issues still to be addressed effectively by the Thai government, such as its treatment of minorities, including hilltribe and moslem people, refugees from neighbouring countries such as Burma and Laos, and the large and rising prison population.

Draconian Thai government attempts to stamp out drugs and terrorism are more widely understood to be aggravating, rather than improving, the situation. Pouring government funds into military, police and official agencies, which are often corrupt themselves, is not proving to be an effective way to combat drugs, terrorism or crime.

Is it not preferable to tackle the root of the problem? To support the livelihood, welfare and rights of the poor and oppressed? Would this not be more likely to reduce pressures in society for people to turn to drugs, terrorism and crime? However, it is quite clear that vested interests, and the powers-that-be, are not easily convinced by this argument, especially if their job in an anti-drugs or anti-terrorism agency may be at stake.

Hilltribe Prisoners Down-Trodden by System of Discrimination

Below are the names of some hilltribe prisoners and the prison addresses they are currently held at in Thailand. If you are able to write to any of them, or even to visit them, they will be very grateful for your concern and support.

Chit Win Sein, (He is a 26-year-old Akha man from Burma. His Akha name is Aryoke Chermegu.) Klong Pai Central Prison, Building 3, 300 Klong Pai, A. Sikiu, Nakhon Ratchasima 30340 THAILAND

Apha Mopogu, (He is a 32-year-old Akha man from China.) Youth Central Prison, block 1, room 30, 22 / 4 M. 3 T. Klong 6, Klong Luang, Pathumthani 12120 THAILAND

Bue Mue Emily Soe, (She is a 54-year-old Akha woman from Burma.) Central Women Correctional Institution, building 5, room 3, 33 / 3 Ngam Wong Wan Road, Lard Yao, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900 THAILAND

Sila no sakul, (She is a 35-year-old Lahu woman from Burma.) Chiangrai Central Prison, block 4, room 10, P.O. Box 221, Doi Hang, A. Muang, Chiangrai 57000 THAILAND

Chamnan Chewchan, (He is a 38-year-old Akha man from Chiangrai Province.) Chiangrai Central Prison, block 2, room 4/5, Doi Hang, A. Muang, Chiangrai 57000 THAILAND

Kenny Lee, (He is a 32-year-old Akha man from Phamee, Chiangrai Province.) Bangkwang Central Prison, block 4, 117 Nonthaburi Road, Suan Yai, Nonthaburi 11000 THAILAND

Songsak Wangnapalai, (He is a Hmong man from Chiangrai.) Bangkwang Central Prison, block 2, 117 Nonthaburi Road, Suan Yai, Nonthaburi 11000 THAILAND

By Anon posted 14 February 05

Picture: The prison

Prisoners describing the conditions in Bangkwang (1998):

"At present the one meal a day provided by the prison for only Western foreigners consists of a small plastic bag of rice along with an inedible stew, that is not fit to sustain an animal.

The prison is overcrowded: in 1998 there were 140,000 prisoners in Thailand in prisons that were originally built to only house 90,000 with an available budget for only 70,000 prisoners.

Prisoner sleep shoulder to shoulder. There are no clean sanitary facilities available, the water is filthy because it is pumped from the nearby river.

Prisoners suffer from the isolation from their families and friends. There are no telephones available."


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