Da Torpedo: Thailand’s lady in the iron mask-Asian Correspondent

June 16, 2011

Da Torpedo: Thailand’s Lady in the Iron Mask

Andrew Spooner

Asian Correspondent: March 30, 2011



This weekend as pictures of the brutal arrest of Iman al-Obeidi at the hands of Libyan security services flashed around the world, on the other side of the planet a diminutive Thai woman, Daranee Chanchoengsilpakul, was trying to get some sleep in an overcrowded Bangkok prison cell.

Daranee, aka Da Torpedo, has been sharing this prison cell with up to 180 other women for almost three years now. During this period she has been singled out for special treatment, had the usual rights to visitors denied, been refused access outside to medical treatment (usually granted for murderers and rapists) for an incredibly painful jaw infection, not been provided with a proper “soft food” diet to take into account her condition, and foreign journalists are now forbidden from either meeting or interviewing her.

In addition to this, Da Torpedo’s trial was held, in extraordinary circumstances, behind closed doors (this trial has since been deemed a “mistrial” – yet she is still imprisoned – once again this is an extraordinary practice and if a rapist or murderer was in a similar position it is likely they would be released while awaiting retrial). Her crimes were so ‘severe’ that if I discussed the actual details of her actions here, I too could suffer arrest and imprisonment if I returned to Thailand and likely AsianCorrespondent.com would be censored.

You might now be wondering what crime Da Torpedo committed – in short, she made a public speech criticising the Thai Royal Family. For this act she received an 18-year prison sentence under Thailand’s infamous and draconian lese majeste law.

Readers could also begin to be curious why the likes of Amnesty International haven’t yet taken up Da Torpedo’s case in what appears to be as clear cut an example of Prisoner of Conscience. Back in 2009, just after Da’s imprisonment, Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s International Secretariat’s Thai based researcher said this regarding her sentence and the use of lese majeste.

“We have felt that working in a more private capacity than in a public way is the most appropriate and the most effective response on the lese majeste issue to date. There is an implicit knowledge of the sensitivity of this law [and] there are competing interests at stake; one is the right to freedom of expression. But you have an institution here that has played an important role in the protection of human rights in Thailand. We can see why the monarchy needs to be protected.”

With lese majeste arrests and imprisonments spiking over the last two years the abject failings of Amnesty’s policy of working in a “private capacity” are stark enough. And, due to the exact same lese majeste laws that imprisoned Da Torpedo in the first place, it is impossible to reasonably debate Mr. Zawacki’s assertion regarding the role of the institution in protecting human rights. This is something Mr. Zawacki would’ve been profoundly aware of when he issued this response – he would have known full well that the context of his statement could not be substantially discussed.

But there’s more. As well as stating that Amnesty could see why the monarchy needed protecting from a political speech with an 18-year prison sentence, it should also be noted that Mr. Zawacki, according to evidence I have seen, seemingly colluded with Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in putting out the message that the contents of Da’s speech were “violent”, and therefore “Prisoner of Conscience” status could not be given to her.

Of course, given the full-blown coverage of the Libyan security service’s treatment of Iman al-Obeidi, one might then expect the Bangkok-based international media to report on Da Torpedo’s case. Yet, at the moment, as far as I’m aware, only two or three foreign journalists have ever attempted to interview or take on Da Torpedo’s case – almost nothing has ever been published in the Western or foreign press about her.

At present the only sources persisting in keeping the treatment of Da Torpedo in the public eye are various websites and blogs such as Political Prisoners in Thailand and Prachatai and the Asian Human Rights Commission. A few local Thai activists and foreign journalists (including myself) have attempted to ask Amnesty International direct questions about why they have refused to condemn the imprisonment of Da Torpedo or give her Prisoner of Conscience status but every query is completely ignored. Human Rights Watch have, to their credit, published a few mentions of Da Torpedo’s case but it is too little, ineffective and relatively meaningless.

One of the only people to come out of this sad and sordid tale with any credit is Da Torpedo’s brother, Kittichai, who has been making the long 12-hour bus ride from Phuket to Bangkok on a weekly basis to bring his sister food and, of course, much needed encouragement. Just over a month ago I met Kittichai at the gates of Bangkok’s Women’s Central Prison in an attempt to gain access and interview his sister – this visit to the prison and attempts to secure a meeting with Da Torpedo will be covered in part two of Da Torpedo: Thailand’s Lady in the Iron Mask in a couple of days’ time.


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