Activist recalls time in prison

national July 04, 2014 00:00

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Yellow-shirt Veera speaks about his three years in a Cambodian jail

Nationalist Veera Somkwamkid talks to The Nation’s Kamonchanok Teekakul after his return to Thailand on Wednesday. He served three-and-a-half years of an eight-year sentence for espionage, trespassing and illegal entry before he was released on a royal pardon.

Q: What were the conditions like in Prey Sar prison?Thailand’s prisons are supposed to be better. Prey Sar Prison is in poor condition and is dirty. From the first day I entered I had to drink unclean water. 

As a political prisoner from another country, I was detained in a separate cell from other inmates with a Cambodian who was assigned to monitor my behaviour. 

Initially, I was restricted from reading, speaking and writing, which made me feel very uneasy. I felt better after practising dharma. 
I noticed that some inmates became mentally sick, because they could not adapt to prison life, and they misbehaved because of the prison environment. It is easy to get cigarettes and drugs in Prey Sar if you have money.

Q : How did you deal with the conditions?

It was not so difficult, as I have never been attached to comfort. I did not need to work like other inmates, and the prison guards left me alone, as they knew that I was not a felon, and that I was sentenced because of a political agenda. 
On Day 1, I made a request to the prison commander demanding that the guards or the staff should not violate my rights and dignity as a Thai. They took good care of preventing Cambodian inmates from harming me. 
Obviously they were concerned that the Preah Vihear temple dispute may have aroused nationalist anger in some of the Cambodians.

Q : How did you manage to stay out of trouble?

I stayed alone and I remained very cautious. In the first six months a new guard arrived at the prison. 
He was very brutal and often beat inmates to unconsciousness for petty violations. I approached him and told him that his actions violated human rights and were illegal. 
He was later transferred away. After that the inmates came to thank me, which earned me more respect and acceptance. The guards were in awe of me. 
I think this was due to my reputation in Thailand, where I am known for being anti-corruption. I never acted obstinately and I was friendly to all the inmates who wanted to know me.
Many of them approached me to introduce themselves. Naturally, conversations were still limited [by prison regulations], but they were later allowed at a greater length because guards had witnessed my good nature. 
I helped out everyone by giving them medicines or money to buy food. I also advised smokers on the hazards of cigarettes, and they later avoided me when smoking.
How did you get on with the other inmates?
Initially I was worried about whether I could get along with them. There were a lot of African drug convicts who were mean and gathered in large groups. 
They have a lot of money and power, as do the Chinese and South American gang members. There are also many Cambodia criminals. 
But once they got to know me, they called me Dad or Uncle, and this granted me even more respect as my stature grew. 
Yet you still need to be careful, as influential and rich inmates are allowed to possess knives for cooking, which can occasionally be used to inflict harm.

Q : What are your immediate plans for the future?

I have just returned home, so I need some time to get my thoughts in order. Nothing has changed much after my time in prison, which I adapted to fairly comfortably. Before my release I did not get excited. 
I just realised that the moment I had been waiting for had arrived. I did feel better, though. 
Now I will spend more time with my family and live my life normally. 
I am not stressed out and there is nothing negative left in my mind. It’s all gone.

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