By Jan Servaes*
BRUSSELS, 13 March 2023 (IDN) — Political hunger strikers Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon, 21, and Orawan “Bam” Phupong, 23, ended their hunger strike on Saturday, March 11, after 53 days. “Tawan and Bam want to let the public know that we have ended the hunger strike to save our lives and continue fighting,” Tawan said in a Facebook post. “The medical staff is concerned about our kidneys and other organs due to the long period without food and water.” The Bangkok Post confirmed they were conscious and able to communicate.
During the strike, the activists reiterated three demands: reform of the judicial system, the repeal of strict laws that make it illegal for people in Thailand to criticize the monarchy and government, and the release of three activists who were denied bail pending trial.
Only 1 of 3 demands have been partially met—to release all political detainees on bail pending trial. Their two other demands, judicial reform and for all political parties to support the abolition of the lèse-majesté law, were not met.
They met fierce opposition from a conservative public opinion. Moreover, since Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in a military coup in 2014, the use of lèse majeste laws has expanded. “To date, the Thai government has shown little political will to address the plight of activists on hunger strike,” said Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, researcher for Amnesty International’s regional office in Thailand. “In general, they do not attach enough importance to the voices of young people involved in the protests.”
“People have said that the activists are doing this knowing they might not even win, but it’s a way to show the public the ugliness of the courts, the monarchy and all the major institutions,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who is a political activist in exile and associate professor of politics and international relations at Kyoto University in Japan.
In parliament, two opposition parties, Pheu Thai and Move Forward, have called for two of Tawan and Bam’s three demands to be met: the release of political prisoners and judicial reform. Only Move Forward has addressed the third demand, which calls for reform—but not removal—of the lese-majeste law. “The two opposition parties were unwilling to change their stance to make it more progressive or radical—perhaps for fear of alienating their more conservative base,” Pravit Rojanaphruk notes cynically in Khaosod English. “All political parties are now in the election campaign mode with the general elections expected by May if not sooner, so they are not willing to support street protests to the point where the election cannot be held or risk another military intervention”, he added.
Anti-government protesters in Thailand are mostly young people, often minors, who rely heavily on social media to spread their message. Tawan and Bam’s case has received more mainstream media attention in Thailand than expected, their lawyer, Kunthika Nutcharut, said, as major newspapers and television channels at home and abroad reported on the hunger strike.
During the protests, the two have tried to strike a non-confrontational tone. Their legal team advised that instead of trying to “coerce and threaten” the authorities, the activists should “beg and plead … with their own suffering”. The sight of two young adults willing to come so close to death for the release of their fellow activists and the integrity of their country’s institutions is rare. “This is the first time [in Thailand] that people go on a hunger strike for other people,” said lawyer Kunthika.
It is still not enough to push the Thai government to take the right measures. “It is clear that more support is needed, both nationally and internationally, to ensure that Thailand ends its crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly that led to the hunger strike.”
*Jan Servaes is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change (https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-981-10-7035-8) and co-editor of SDG18 Communication for All, Volumes 1&2, 2023 (https://link.springer.com/book/9783031191411) [IDN-InDepthNews]
Image: Thai political activist Orawan ‘Bam’ Phuphong on admission to hospital on 24 February 2023 © Tanat Chayaphattharitthee
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