The photographic campaign to 'free Akong' strikes a chord with hundreds of people at home and abroad
Pavin Chachavalpongpun had no idea he was fostering a boom in body art when he launched his online campaign last month against the lese majesty law.
The Singapore-based Thai political scientist’s drive known as “Thailand’s Fearlessness: Free Akong” is an appeal for demonstrations of support for Amphon “Akong” Tangnoppakul, the 61-year-old recently jailed for 20 years on what many believe is a trumped-up charge.
Pavin, who’s also a Nation columnist, was inspired by the “Fearlessness” project in Burma, in which former political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi have had their photos published with the names of current prisoners written on the palms of their hands.
Pavin opened a page on Facebook to invite Thais to similarly show support for Akong by uploading their photos with his name printed on their hands. “The Burmese are very courageous – why can’t Thais be like them?” he declared in a challenge.
James Mackay, a British photographer working in Southeast Asia, initiated the Burmese project and compiled the photos in a book. “Mackay was very kind in allowing me to use his concept to raise awareness in Thailand,” Pavin says. “And, like his campaign, Thailand’s Fearlessness is peaceful.”
But Pavin didn’t expect people to inscribe “Akong” on other parts of their bodies. Lukkana Panvichai, the outspoken Matichon columnist who goes by the name “Kham Phaka”, took many people by surprise – and electrified the campaign – by also scrawling “No Hatred for Naked Heart” across her bare chest.
The photo, which does not show her head, was re-posted around the Net.
Given the additional attention it drew, Pavin has no objection. “I don’t mind at all if some people choose to paint meaningful messages on their bodies,” he says. “Why would we restrict their ideas? Is Thailand not meant to be a place where liberal thought can flourish?”
The deadline for submitting photos was last Monday, and Pavin had images of 500 people from around the globe. Most by far have “Akong” on their palms, but others followed Kham Phaka’s example and inscribed it on more personal parts of the body.
Debate raged when news website Prachatai.com published the picture of Kham Phaka’s nude protest, even though editor Pinpaka Ngamsom points out that going naked for a cause is nothing new, especially in cyberspace.
She points out that Ai Weiwei, the high-profile Chinese artist arrested earlier this year over alleged tax evasion, is now also under investigation for spreading pornography after a photo was circulated of him seated with four women, all of them nude.
In the name of freedom of expression, Ai’s supporters responded by stripping off in solidarity and posting their pictures online.
“We decided to publish Kham Phaka’s photo because we wondered why she’d gone so much further than others,” Pinpaka says. “Whatever message she wanted to convey, it’s been costly, because it seems that Thai society isn’t familiar with nude protests.”
Kham Phaka – who has in fact been photographed naked before in the interest of gender equality – has defended her latest image in terms of “art” attacking injustice. “The courage to reveal one’s heart and one’s bared body, the courage to reveal one’s identity, is the true way to confront and overcome fear,” she said.
Pavin loves the phrase she chose – “No Hatred for Naked Heart”. “Unless we open our hearts, hatred will never go away,” he says.
Like Mackay, Pavin will assemble all of the photos submitted to him in a book as a reminder to those who abuse justice that “decent” Thais have reached the limit of their tolerance.
Who is Akong?
Amphon Tangnoppakul’s nickname is a southern Chinese word for “Grandpa”.
The 61-year-old was arrested on August 3 last year, accused of sending four text messages from his mobile phone that were deemed defamatory to the monarchy and Her Majesty the Queen.
The messages were allegedly sent to then-Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva’s secretary, Somkiat Klongwattanasuk.
Amphon has maintained that he doesn’t even know how to send messages from his phone, but this past November 23 he was jailed for 20 years. The court dismissed his argument that his phone was being repaired at the time the messages were sent, noting that he could not identify the repair shop.
The verdict has been hotly debated in the social media, apart from Pavin’s Facebook page.
“This is an old Thai-Chinese man who perhaps knows nothing about l