In this fifth session of the webinar series on ‘Wellbeing in Southeast Asia’, Dr Bencharat Sae Chua examined the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic on the well-being of prisoners in Thailand.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME
Monday, 19 July 2021 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar on “Prisons, Political Voices and the Pandemic: Challenges in Ensuring the Wellbeing of Excluded Communities in Thailand”. This is the fifth in the series on “Well-being in Southeast Asia” supported by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS). The webinar was delivered by Dr Bencharat Sae Chua, a Lecturer at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University, Thailand, and was moderated by Dr Kevin S.Y. Tan, Visiting Senior Research Fellow of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
The webinar opened with remarks by Mr Christian Echle, Director of Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia of KAS. Mr Echle noted the importance of understanding the well-being of excluded communities around the world. He explained that the challenges of ensuring the well-being of disadvantaged communities are not unique to Thailand and Southeast Asia at large. Elsewhere, the less visible communities such as refugee and migrant workers were also adversely impacted by the rapid spread of Covid-19 due to their poor living conditions. Mr Echle hoped that the audience could draw from this presentation to reflect what needs to be done for these communities around the world.
Dr Chua began her talk by providing an overview of the Covid-19 situation in Thailand. While her presentation is focused on the issue of Thai prisoners’ well-being, she explained that this discussion has broader relevance to understanding the well-being of other disadvantaged communities in Thailand and Southeast Asia. Currently, Thailand is still facing its third wave of Covid-19 infections, with nearly 3000 cases of infections reported in prisons in mid-May. According to Dr Chua, the news of Covid-19 breakout in prisons was first brought to light by a political detainee, who sounded a warning through his supporters and attorneys. She described that the Covid-19 infections accounted for an estimated 13% of the total prison population in Thailand, including 100% of two prisons and 65 to 95% in at least three other prisons in the country.
However, as the pandemic continues unabated, there are also emerging questions about its uneven impacts on prisoners. As Dr Chua explained, prisoners often have lower levels of mobilities, which have direct connections with their well-being. These mobilities are both spatial and political. As commonly understood in Thailand, prisoners often live in poor, cramped, and unsanitary conditions, which restrict how and where they move on the prison’s compounds. Furthermore, not only do prisoners have little say in the country’s political affairs; they are also prohibited from running for political positions at least ten years after detention.
Even though Covid preventive measures have been put in place in prisons, these measures are not without implications. An example of such measures is the mandatory teleconsultation between the inmates or detainees and their attorneys. Dr Chua highlighted that issues of power outages are relatively common in prisons, which affected the quality of teleconsultation between the inmates or detainees with their attorneys. Limiting communication with their attorneys and legal consultants has immense implications on prisoners’ well-being both in short and long terms. Not only do these teleconsultation measures put a strain on the prisoners’ stress levels in the short run; they also inadvertently slow down or even close down possibilities for securing criminal justice and rights to fairness.
In closing, Dr Chua said that prisoners are not the only disadvantaged group caught in the Covid prevention quagmire. Migrant workers, ethnic minorities and refugees living along the Thai-Myanmar borders often find themselves handicapped in the country’s fight against Covid-19. Given their status as temporary citizens, or the lack thereof, these groups tend to experience most difficulties in accessing suitable vaccination and healthcare plans. Dr Chua emphasised that more needs to be done to help these communities who are also most vulnerable to the risks of Covid-19.
The webinar concluded with a Question and Answer session. The online audience engaged the speakers on a variety of issues, which include the geographical distribution of infected cases in Thailand’s prisons, questions of existing and potential efforts at prison reform, prison revolution in Thailand, and vaccination plans for Thai prisoners.