Thai activists facing royal defamation charges end 50-day hunger strike

Two young Thai protesters facing royal defamation charges announced Saturday they were ending their marathon hunger strike following doctors’ fears they could suffer organ failure.


Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon, 21, and Orawan “Bam” Phupong, 23, began their hunger strike on January 18 to urge political parties to support the abolition of the kingdom’s royal insult laws – among the harshest in the world.

Wednesday marked the 50th day of the young women’s protest. They were freed from custody last month as their health declined.

“Tawan and Bam would like to inform the public that we have stopped the hunger strike to save our lives to continue fighting,” Tawan said in a Facebook post on Saturday. “The medical staff are concerned our kidneys and other organs are affected by the long period without food and water.”

The pair were rushed to Thammasat Hospital near Bangkok on March 3 amid fears they would not survive the night.

Days later they were still alive and determined to continue their strike from hospital. “I talked to them: they are a little bit better. Still very tired,” said their lawyer, Kunthika Nutcharut, on Tuesday. 

Throughout the strike the activists reiterated three demands: justice system reform, the abolition of strict laws that make it illegal for people in Thailand to criticise the monarchy and government, and the release of three activists (who go by the names Kathatorn, Thiranai and Chaiporn) who were refused bail while awaiting trial for taking part in anti-government protests. 

They faced stiff opposition. Thailand has a recent history of pro-democracy protests that gain traction before being put down. Prime Minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has served in his role since seizing power in a military coup in 2014, after which he expanded the use of lèse majesté laws, and successfully thwarted anti-government protests in 2020. 

The ruling Pheu Thai party, together with its previous incarnations, has won every Thai election since 2001. 

“People have said the activists are doing this knowing that they might not even win, but it’s a way to show the public the ugliness of the courts, the monarchy and all the key institutions,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor of politics and international relations at Kyoto University and a political exile from Thailand. 

Hunger strikes 

Tawan and Bam currently face charges for conducting a poll at Siam Paragon shopping mall on February 8, 2022, that asked whether royal motorcades were an inconvenience to Bangkok residents.  

While awaiting trial, Tawan, a university student, and Bam, a supermarket worker, were released on bail in March 2022 on the condition that they ceased participation in protests and activities that insult the royal family.  

On January 16 their bail was revoked at their request, to call attention to the practice of pretrial detention for political activists in Thailand. On January 18, the pair began their hunger strike while housed in Bangkok’s Central Women’s Correctional Institution. 

Within days their condition had deteriorated. “They did dry fasting on the first three days,” Kunthika said, meaning the women refused food and water. “It was so extreme that their bodies became sick to the point that doctors are not usually faced with cases like theirs.”  

The pair were eventually transferred to Thammasat University Hospital near Bangkok, where they received small amounts of water and vitamins on doctors’ orders. On March 3, the 44th day of the strike, they discharged themselves to join dozens of protesters supporting their cause outside Thailand’s Supreme Court. 

A special tent had been set up outside the court to house the women, but by evening doctors feared they were at risk of kidney failure and may not survive the night without medical intervention. Tawan was so weak that she became unresponsive, Kunthika said. “She’s already doing her second hunger strike since last year, and her body has not fully recovered since then.”  

The lawyer says the pair agreed to return to hospital on the basis that while they remain alive, other activists may see charges against them dropped. 

Of the 16 people detained without bail pending trial since anti-government protests in 2020, only three now remain in jail. Many activists were granted bail in February, during the hunger strike. “And some people argue that [their protest] is why the court was willing to set free a number of people charged under these laws,” said Pavin. 

Kunthika said in the same period, dozens of political prisoners have had their obligation to wear electronic tagging devices removed. Some have also had restrictions lifted limiting the hours during which they can leave the house.  

Criticising the monarchy 

Breaking lèse majesté laws, which forbids defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about senior members of the royal family, comes with a penalty of a minimum of three and a maximum of 15 years in prison under article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code.  

Although the law officially forbids criticism of senior members of the royal family, activist groups say it is widely misinterpreted by authorities to cover negative comments on any aspect of the monarchy whatsoever. Sedition laws also prohibit criticism of the government. 

Since anti-government protests flared in Thailand in 2020, more than 200 people have been charged with lèse majesté crimes. The law has been used by all political factions to silence opposition, activist groups say. 

Lifting charges for Tawan and Bam’s fellow activists means the Thai court is at risk of undermining its own authority. On one hand, the number of lèse majesté cases in Thailand has “increased significantly” in the past year, Human Rights Watch reports. On the other, if activism can force through legal reversals it shows, “the king could also force the courts to do something. It raises very, very important questions about Thai jurisprudence”, Kunthika said. 

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 broached the third demand, calling for reform – but not removal – of the lèse majesté law. 

As Tawan and Bam’s health has deteriorated, human rights groups have urgently called for the government to engage with the activists, to no avail. “To date, the Thai government has shown little political will to address the situation of the activists on hunger strike,” said Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, researcher for Amnesty International’s regional office in Thailand. “In general, they are not giving due weight to the voices of young people involved in protests.” 

Last month the prime minister, through his office’s spokesman, said he hopes the two activists are safe but urged parents to “monitor their children’s behavior and build the correct understandings to ensure that [the children] do not believe and fall victim to political manipulation”.  

‘Imploring and pleading’ 

Anti-government protesters in Thailand are typically young, often children, who rely heavily on social media to spread their message. Tawan and Bam’s case has received more mainstream media coverage within Thailand than expected, their lawyer says, with major newspapers and television channels all reporting on their hunger strike.  

Throughout the protests the pair have tried to strike a non-confrontational tone. Their legal team has said that rather than trying to “force and coerce” authorities the activists are “imploring and pleading … with their own suffering”. 

The sight of two young adults willing to edge 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 are doing a hunger strike for other people,” Kunthika said. 

There is also international support. Thousands have signed an open letter from Amnesty International appealing to the prime minister to withdraw charges against activists like Tawan and Bam, and to release others. 

“It is still not enough to push the Thai government to take the appropriate actions,” said Chanatip. “It is clear that more support is needed both domestically and internationally to ensure that Thailand stops its crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, which prompted the hunger strike.” 

The timing of their hunger strike brings also complexities on the ground. General elections are scheduled for May, bringing hope for some that opposition parties will succeed at the ballot box.  

Until then, there is low appetite for anti-government protest – which the hunger strike may have otherwise inspired. “Even among the pro-democracy groups it seems like election is something that they think will be the light at the end of the tunnel,” Pavin said. “[They think] maybe we can hold for the next few months because the election will come. Then if the result doesn’t fulfil us, we can think about protest.” 

Source: Thanks france24