When Thailand’s former leader Thaksin Shinawatra returned from exile in August, he became arguably the most high-profile person held in the country’s notorious prisons. But the billionaire businessman, who was jailed over corruption-related charges, was inside for little more than 12 hours before he was moved to the premium ward of a hospital in Bangkok.
His perceived soft handling has prompted claims of special treatment and ignited a series of wider questions about standards within the prison system.
According to reports in Thai media, Thaksin was moved to the wing of a hospital with private rooms fitted with air conditioning and a TV, fridge, sofa and dining table, while under 24-hour care by nurses. Officials have denied he’s been the recipient of any special treatment, saying the former prime minister needed urgent care as he was experiencing insomnia, chest tightness and high blood pressure and the oxygen levels in his fingertips were low.
However, activists and lawyers have pointed to conditions inside Thailand’s jails, where cells are overcrowded and lacking in hygiene and medical care is limited. They say the same standard of care should be afforded to all prisoners.
In a recent article for the Bangkok Post, Andrea Giorgetta of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) writes: “One positive aspect of the Thaksin saga is that it has put a spotlight on the often-overlooked issue of prison conditions in Thailand.”
The FIDH’s latest annual report on the state of jails noted that while the prison population was falling, jails remained overstretched and had been repeatedly criticised for falling below international standards.
Access to showering facilities is often extremely limited; in one facility, inmates are allowed to stand under a shower only for the time it takes a prison guard to count up to 15. In the centre of a cell there are typically one to three squat toilets, with a tub of water and a bowl used for flushing and cleaning – but often such water has run out, the FIDH report found. Cells can be shared by as many as 50 or 60 people, according to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR).
Political prisoners represented by TLHR have, like others, reported a lack of nutritious food and clean drinking water. Prison water has a strong smell of chlorine, inmates say, with some reporting seeing mosquito larvae in the water. If prisoners want to buy bottled water or food, they must work in the prison or rely on family to send items.
Activists and lawyers say that when inmates do become ill, accessing medical care is a drawn-out process.
“There may be certain facts or circumstances in Mr Thaksin’s case that required such expedited procedure,” Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen, a lawyer at TLHR, says of Thaksin’s overnight transfer. “But from our experiences in working with other prisoners, that’s an unusually quick timeframe.”
Some have contrasted Thaksin’s swift transfer to hospital with that of the political prisoners charged under the country’s strict lese-majesty laws, who can spend weeks on hunger strike before they are taken to hospital.
One woman, known as Warunee and represented by TLHR, was moved to a university hospital this week, but only after spending 14 days on hunger strike. Her body weight had already dropped 10%, from 37kg to 33kg.
Poonsuk says she was particularly concerned about Warunee’s wellbeing. She has bipolar disorder, and it is feared that sleep deprivation due to her hunger strike and conditions inside may exacerbate her condition. Medication is also limited in the prison, Warunee has told her lawyers.
Other young protesters imprisoned for lese-majesty have waited longer to be hospitalised. Parit Chiwarak, a prominent protest leader also known as Penguin, was transferred to hospital only on the 47th day of his hunger strike.
After Thaksin’s move to hospital, the hashtag VVIP begun trending and footage of him in exile – including a 2021 clip of him energetically boxing – was shared on social media, as people raised questions about the seriousness of his condition. His daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra has said she is worried about his heart, and that he had lung problems after contracting Covid.
Still, some have now speculated that he could spend the remainder of his sentence – which has been reduced by a royal pardon from eight years to one year – in hospital.
Poonsuk says it is possible Thaksin has been treated differently from her clients because of his advanced age. If he is ill, TLHR has no complaints about his treatment, she says, but adds: “We would hope that other prisoners would be afforded the same standard as well.”