A professor detained for his thoughts

Note: On 29 April, a university professor was arrested as part of a sweep of six individuals accused of committing lèse majesté by posting to Facebook. He has been denied bail, as most are in these cases. Last week, Yukti Mukdawijitra, an anthropology professor at Thammasat University went to visit him. What follows are his reflections on their conversation, which was first published in Thai in his usual blog column for Prachatai.—trans.

“The sky is more expansive inside than it is outside. One can nearly see the horizon.”

This was the first sentence that my academic colleague, who is being detained for his thoughts, uttered after we greeted one another. I was secretly surprised and delighted that the professor had moved beyond fear to experience a new and strange horizon, even though he is inside a constricted space.

This was the first time that I had the opportunity to visit the professor after his right to bail was denied. This is a right that one should enjoy before a final judgment is made in one’s case. If you are familiar with this type of case, you will understand that what I was saying was not far from true.

The professor spoke rapidly and was jittery when we first began chatting. He explained the that the routine he experienced from waking in the morning to going to sleep each evening was designed to make anyone subject to it into “exactly what Foucault referred to as the docile body.”

As the professor relaxed, he became more eloquent and animated. His eyes sparkled like those of an anthropology student just returned from fieldwork in a far off land overseas.

“There are many cats inside and they all sleep together in one corner. Some of the prisoners do not like cats.”

“This zone is the one where young people (those under 30 years-old) are held. Even though it is more crowded, it preferable to my previous zone. The young people are all very lively. Each is being punished in a different kind of case, but they all hunger for knowledge. Many come chat with me and ask about this and that. They want to learn.”

The professor was also very excited about the delimitation of space. He explained that, “They have used their own methods to define and organize space, even the bathroom. If a curtain has been put up as a wall, people know not to enter the bathroom because someone is masturbating and should not be bothered.”

The professor said that he has encountered a wide diversity of people and has been able to write a great deal.

The professor said that he speaks often with his family and they understand. Their lives proceed as usual.

At the end, I told the professor that, “This year, there will be three international academic conferences in Thailand. Academics from all over the world know what has transpired and are waiting to see what will happen next.”

The professor interjected and asked, “And the conference for which my paper was selected?”

I did not waver and said, “I hope that you will be released and can present your work. But if you are not released in time to present your paper, the academics will have to take action.”

I observed the professor’s enthusiasm and passion about the stories he is accumulating about the compelling people he has encountered. The primary sense I got was that the professor wanted to convey his experience of open space from the perspective of someone confined in a narrow area. I am confident that he has the will to struggle through this period of his life.

In truth, after the professor commented that, “The sky is more expansive inside than it is outside,” he continued and said that, “But there is no chance to see the moon because we must go into our cells at night.”

I read the professor’s words as a satirical comment on the illusory freedom outside the barred walls of the prison and a decrial of the detention of his body inside them. Even though his empty body is imprisoned, do not think for a moment that the flesh and body which are the vessel for his experience are imprisoned, not to mention that his thought cannot be contained.

 

Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn.