Image: Tantawan "Tawan" Tuatulanon and Orawan "Bam" Phupong. Credit: Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand (FCCT) - Photo: 2023

Hunger Strike in Thai Prison Threatens Two Young Political Activists

By Jan Servaes*

BRUSSELS, 23 Feb 2023 (IDN) — Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon and Orawan “Bam” Phupong, aged 21 and 23, respectively, have been on hunger strike since January 18 to push for reforms in Thailand’s judicial system, the release of political prisoners and the abolition or reform of some of the laws against dissidents, including the infamous Lèse Majesté law.

The two activists say they went on a hunger strike to protest the unfair policies imposed on political prisoners, including denial of bail, travel restrictions, restrictions on freedom of expression and the lèse-majeste law they allegedly broke.

The two activists have been charged with lèse majesté for publicly holding a sign asking whether the motor caravan of members of the royal family, which often entails road closures in Bangkok, is causing inconveniences to the public. Tantawan also faces a second charge for the content of a live stream she coordinated on Facebook.

“It is tragic that these two young women feel they have to risk their lives to fight for their faith. Whatever one may think of their ideas, they should be able to express them freely, as they would in a truly democratic country, and not in a climate of repression that leads to such extreme ways of expressing dissent”.

“Right now, the first priority should be to save their lives, but it is also crucial to spark a frank debate about their demands,” said Kasit Piromya, former Thai foreign minister and board member of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

According to media reports, the two activists are extremely weak and there are concerns for their lives. Medical staff at Thammasat University Hospital, as well as the women’s lawyers, state that both Tawan and Bam are now in a dangerous condition and need 24-hour medical care.

Having previously revoked their own bail on January 16 to return to prison ahead of their hunger strike, both women refused to be released when they were offered bail on February 7. Their situation prompted vows from government leaders, including the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice, to protect the health of the two women.

Doctors say their organs are failing and if their hunger strike continues, it could be fatal.

Auncha Nakasai, minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, stated in the Feb. 11 Bangkok Post that General Prayut is “concerned about the political movement of the young generation”.

In an editorial, the Bangkok Post replies: “While General Prayut’s sympathy is welcome, his posts are also disturbing and unproductive. It is shocking to hear that the man who so readily promised “peace and reconciliation” after the coup in 2014 underestimates the credibility of young political activists and tries to position them as pawns of political groups. His words will only further alienate dissidents. Perhaps now we understand why his national reconciliation plan remains half-baked and young activists have become more alienated and even radicalized during his eight-year tenure.”

Lese Majesté

Thailand’s lèse-majeste law, designed to defend and protect the monarchy, is one of the strictest in the world.

The law is very controversial internationally. Both the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) are calling on the Thai authorities to end legal prosecution of individuals seeking to exercise their right to freedom of expression. In addition, they want to amend Articles 112 (on lèse-majesté) and 116 (sedition) to bring it into line with Thai human rights obligations as provided for in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) adopted in 1966.

Article 112 is often interpreted in a very loose way and has been used extensively in recent years as a weapon against political rivals. The main reason for this is that any Thai citizen can bring charges against anyone for allegedly violating Article 112: “Anyone who slanders, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir to the throne or regent shall be punished with imprisonment from three to fifteen years.”

At least 215 people have been prosecuted under Article 112 in 234 cases between November 2020 and June 2022, including 17 minors, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Of these lawsuits, at least 108 were brought by ordinary citizens, while the rest were brought by various Thai state institutions.

Other documentation shows that at least 349 individuals were harassed or controlled by government officials in 2022. Twenty-four of the group are under the age of 18; the number of children being harassed and controlled is higher than that of 2021.

By region, at least 140 persons from central Thailand were harassed, 97 in the north, 67 in the northeast, 41 in the south, and another 4 persons reported harassment incidents without details on location. (Data as of December 29, 2022)

Even a 14-year-old child was charged

In early February, it became known that 14-year-old Thanalop (surname withheld) was summoned by Samranrat police station to report after being accused of royal defamation by royalist activist Anon Klinkaew, head of the ultra-royalist group People’s Center to Protect the Monarchy.

She is the youngest person ever to be charged with defamation of royalty; while 65-year-old former civil servant Anchan Preelert, sentenced to 43 years in prison on January 19, 2021 for 29 counts of lèse-majesté over online posts, is among the oldest.

The subpoena for Thanalop does not state why she is being charged, but states that the cause of the complaint was an incident that took place around the Giant Swing in Bangkok’s Old Town on October 13, 2022. Anon Klinkaew accused the high school student of writing on a placard calling for Section 112 to be abolished.

Relaxations in sight?

Several UN human rights monitoring mechanisms have expressed concern about the growing number of lèse-majeste prosecutions in Thailand and the increasingly strict application of Article 112. They have also repeatedly called for Article 112 to be amended or repealed.

”We have four activists repeatedly emphasized that lese majeste laws have no place in a democratic country,” stated a meeting of UN experts in early February 2021 in a special report for the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council. “Their increasingly strict application has had the effect of chilling freedom of expression and further restricting public space and the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms in Thailand,” they added.

Human Rights Watch called on the Thai government to adhere to the UN-sponsored 1976  Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Thailand is a signatory to: “Holding those charged with lese majeste in pretrial detention violates their rights under international human rights law”, Human Rights Watch said.

On February 17, a court unexpectedly released four activists of the Thalu Gas movement on bail from the notorious Bangkok Remand prison. . They had spent more than 240 days in pre-trial detention and their bail requests had previously been rejected more than a dozen times. Upon their release, the four explicitly thanked Tawan and Bam.

But will other activists also be released? And will political parties and leaders heed the activists’ demands for reform, especially when the Prayut administration has repeatedly rejected such demands in the past?

As Pravit Rojanaphruk, Senior Staff Writer, states in KhaoSod English: “This is Thailand, where corruption is in every corner and every aspect of life, where the police regularly take bribes, where rich people can kill someone in a driving accident under the influence and not going to prison for that”… “If you think Thailand has sunk low enough in the last eight years, it could get even worse in the coming months and years and some wouldn’t even notice”. [IDN-InDepthNews]

*Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change.

Image: Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon and Orawan “Bam” Phupong. Credit: Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand (FCCT)

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