By Lisa Gardner
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a prominent journalist for The Nation newspaper, was released by the Thai military junta on Saturday after being detained for almost one week. He described his six days in detention as “surreal,” a means of “psychological warfare” designed to gather information from him and other detainees.
Pravit turned himself in to the junta on Sunday May 25, three days after Thailand’s military took control of the country in a coup d’etat. Before reporting to the military Pravit made a statement to reporters, declaring that “they can detain me, but they can never detain my conscience.”
Speaking just two days after his release, Pravit told Asian Correspondent Monday: “I’m fine, though it’s been a lot of stress. I’m handling it. I know many people were worried. Lots of people are still being summoned.”
Of his outspoken press statements prior to the beginning of his incarceration, he said, “it was deliberate. I am very well aware that it would provoke the ire of the military junta, but I think someone had to make a stand – to make a statement – so I decided to use the opportunity to inform the public both in Thailand and abroad that we are really facing a severe curtailing of freedom of expression – both in censorship, and self censorship.”
“I entered with Khun Anon (his lawyer) and two people from OHCHR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights], both wearing UN light blue jackets. When I entered the entrance of the old conference room of the Thai Army – which is a nice room – they were prevented from following me, and that’s when we got separated,” said Pravit.
“They took away my mobile phone. They searched for possible weapons. I was the first to arrive on that day of the detainees. We had to wait there for about four hours. Nobody told us when we could leave.”
At dusk, vans arrived.
“Then we were taken away to another location, an army camp in Ratchaburi province. We knew the name of the camp after we arrived, but prior to that we were put in a van with fully-armed soldiers. There was a pick-up van in front of us with at least five or six soldiers with what I reckon to be an M16 on each of them. The two vans which we were put inside moved very quickly… It took us about an hour and a half before we got there. But we spent those hours wondering whether we would be released. I think that was really the first taste of psychological warfare.”
Among the detainees were two former Deputy Prime Ministers, a former Cabinet minister, journalists, a well-known real estate developer and Yingluck Shinawatra’s own lawyer.
“I was so surprised,” said Pravit. “Some [detainees] were already wearing military sports t-shirts with the insignia of the army… I was taken aback by the visual adjustment they had already made.”
The conditions inside were comfortable and the detainees were treated with respect.
“The cordial treatment that they gave us was beyond expectation,” he said. “But I think that was part of the psychology of the whole thing.”
“They put us up in a two-story Thai townhouse with some amenities,” Pravit added. “I think we have to be clear that the treatment was super nice. The Commander greeted us as we set out from the van in the evening, referring to us as ‘older brothers’. He told us to feel at home and to think of it as some kind of out-of-town vacation, of sorts.”
Despite the comfortable setting, clear rules were soon outlined.
“We were told that we would not be able to use phones. There were two phones available – we could use them as we wished – but we would need to give out the number and someone would be standing next to us while we took calls, to eavesdrop.”
The detainees were also free to leave the house and walk around the camp, but always in the company of soldiers.
“The commander of the camp… and his five deputies … spent most of the time talking to us, sharing breakfast, lunch and dinner with us, and informally chit-chatting.”
Some detainees were unnerved by these friendly exchanges, which Pravit describes as “partly psychological warfare.”
“Most people kept wondering how long they would be kept in the camp and we really had no clue,” he said. “The truth of the matter is there was no habeas corpus. Since we were under martial law we knew they could make up a law to keep us there. None of us were charged, or heard any charges. They kept us there and psychologically it had some effect.”
He added: “But the reality is that most of us criticized the military junta and the coup even while in detention. That includes myself. I had a lot of honest exchanges as to why the coup will not be helpful for Thailand and Thai democracy in the long run, why shutting down streets to prevent protestors from gathering would only make matters worse.”
Of the hundreds of people detained by the military junta since the coup, Pravit felt that his group was likely among the best treated. The detainees were also told that reports were being sent to Bangkok on a daily basis on what they said and did.
“The commander was a close subordinate of the Army Chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha. He has a direct line to the boss, which means our group was treated well,” said Pravit.
“I would argue that our group was treated differently. Many of those reporting [to the junta] have been dispatched to different camps in Central and Northeastern Thailand and my hunch is that the treatment we received was probably the best, judging on what we heard about those in other camps.”
Surprisingly, Pravit would spend some time conversing with the former leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (aka Yellow Shirts), Sondhi Limthongkul. The men had never before met.
“It was surreal. Everything was surreal,” he said. “It struck me that we were kind of in this ‘Big Brother’ reality show the entire time.
“I think that it tested everyone’s mettle, being there. Some people crack. Some people cry, some people beg.”
When asked whether the military thought this an information gathering exercise, Pravit responded: “Yes! Yes! Absolutely!”
“I was surprised that one of the generals, who I think was assigned as my man-handler, asked out of the blue: ‘Does [foreign correspondent’s name omitted] have a Thai wife?’, ‘Is [foreign photographer’s name omitted] married to a Thai?’ It means that they have done their homework. He was not reading from the script – he remembered them, by name. He asked about [academic’s name omitted] and whether he had been contacting me, as well as his whereabouts.”
Although Pravit’s ordeal ended more than two days ago, he is still not entirely free of the junta.
“I could write a short book about the whole thing,” he said. “But there’s a tragic note, something very disturbing. Less than 26 hours after my being released, I received a phone call from someone who identified himself as a corporal… He asked if I could stop tweeting. That the junta needed time, free from criticism.
“I already signed a few things, forcibly agreeing not to lead a protest, not to aid the protestors, or not to take part in political meetings. I tried to placate him, saying that if I don’t tweet people will conclude that it’s the junta and there would be a backlash that won’t be helpful (for them). I said I wouldn’t rock the boat very roughly but I would go on criticizing the junta – just as some Thai newspapers are, at least in a gentle, scolding way. He said okay, we’ll see… A few minutes later, another corporal called me – one from the camp… He said to save his number in my phone. He was asked to give all my details to Central Command and that some would be monitoring me and following me. “
Pravit Rojanaphruk was scheduled to speak at Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand in Bangkok tomorrow. The event has since been cancelled.