IT HAS BEEN many months of misery for Natthathida Meewangpla, a key witness in the 2010 killings at Bangkok’s Wat Pathum Wanaram, and the future is still uncertain. Freedom, even temporary, has not come easily.
“I saw some of my fellow inmates being released and returning to prison three to four times during the time I was there. They knew how long they had to serve in prison before they could return home. But I didn’t have any hope. I had no idea what the punishment would be.”
Now also accused of lese majeste, she walked free on bail last month but has no idea when she’ll be back in jail.
Better known as Waen, she was 37 when she was arrested and held in military custody in March 2015 before being transferred to the prison. She was accused, in a case related to the bombing of the Criminal Court, of being a middleman by wiring money to pay for the crime. She was one of 15 people charged with several serious offences – from criminal association to terrorism.
Waen was a successful businesswoman, the mother of two boys and a part-time volunteer nurse before her world collapsed almost overnight. She described herself as “being in a trance” when she first found herself in prison.
“I was too shocked and confused. I didn’t feel anything. It was as if I wasn’t there,” Waen told The Nation. “But I couldn’t quite cry. I had a friend [Wassana Busadee, another defendant in the court-bombing case] who had also been charged and sent there with me. She cried a lot, so I had to be there for her.”
It was stressful for her, especially as a first-timer whose life had been so far removed from the world of crime. Waen kept herself distracted, helping with the work around the prison, so she didn’t have to think about the repeatedly rejected bail pleas and the other frustrations.
Initially, she faced constant challenges from other inmates for being a red-shirt supporter.
“I just kept silent, refraining from arguing with them. But if they asked, I’d give them some answers until they trusted me,” she said. “I did pretty well until the second time that I had to return there very shortly after being released on bail.”
Waen was referring to July last year, when the Military Court agreed to grant her bail – a Bt500,000 surety in the terrorism case.
She had already spent two years and four months behind bars prior to that release. But literally, once she stepped out of prison, Waen was rearrested immediately by an unknown state authority riding in a mysterious pickup truck.
“I hadn’t met anyone yet. It was outside the jail but at an inner gate. No outsiders were allowed there. So I know they were state officials, even though they were in plainclothes.”
This time they pressed the lese majeste charge. The move sparked even more controversy, since Waen was a survivor of the 2010 massacre at Wat Pathum Wanaram and a key witness, testifying against state authorities over the killings of red-shirt protesters and medical volunteers.
Returning to the same prison one day after her release, this time Waen could do nothing but cry. She became mentally unhinged.
“I was shattered. It was beyond anger what I felt. It was intensely frustrating,” she said. “I kept asking myself what I had done wrong. Some inmates said, ‘Hey, I’ve been back and forth three times already and you’re still here.’”
She said: “Inmates with larceny and drug offences do a couple of months or six to 18 months and they get out. But I had no numbers. Will they give me the death sentence or a life sentence for 20 or 50 years or three years? I had no clue.”
What would you do if you were me? Everybody at some point got to go home but I had to stay. What in the world? Why was did the trial go so slowly? What was I supposed to think when other inmates were suggesting I was being buried in the forgotten cell? There was no hope.”
Anuruk Janetawanich, a red-shirt activist known as “Ford the Red Path”, who had raised funds to aid Waen while she was in prison as well as for the cash bail of nearly a million baht, said he noticed Waen was in bad shape three to four months before her release.
From her accounts, Ford said, Waen had already been hallucinating, seeing things and hearing voices. She was also clearly in a bad shape in July while out for the court hearing, appearing stressed, with hollow eyes and cheeks, he said.
She was eventually released on bail last month, three days before her 40th birthday.
“Freedom is the most amazing birthday present I’ve ever received. I’d actually given up hope,” Waen said.
However, before resuming her normal life, she had to get a full body check-up because she was at risk for some serious diseases as she had been in contact with a seriously ill inmate who had not been isolated, according to Ford. Also, Waen has to go see her psychiatrist regularly and get medication to help with depression and hallucination.
“I still wake up at 5am to make my bed,” she said, referring to the prison routine.
“When I go to the bathroom in the morning, I stand in a line that doesn’t exist. Then the reality hits me that I’m no longer in prison. If I tell anyone about this, they’ll think I’m insane.”
With her case ongoing, Waen knows she could be returned to prison at any moment. She refrained from talking about any mistreatment or discrimination because of uncertainty over her future.