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Thailand Agonizes Over Fate of 2 Hunger Strikers Protesting Lese Majeste Law

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Thailand’s House of Representatives convened in an almost unprecedented move to discuss measures to save the lives of two young activists Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon and Orawan “Bam” Phuphong on hunger strike.

The pair poured red liquid over their heads in front of the Criminal Court in Bangkok on January 16, then asked the court to revoke their bail. Under the so-called lese majeste law, the two young women are charged with insulting the royal family.

Two days later, the pair went on hunger strike to protest what they see as unjust pretrial detention of those who criticize Thailand’s monarchy.

They also made three demands for justice system reform: an end to prosecutions for exercising free expression, repeal of the lese majeste law, or Article 112, and repeal of the sedition law, or Article 116. Lese majeste is punishable by up to 15 years in prison under Article 112, and it is punishable by up to seven years in prison under Article 116.

Wh0 exactly are Bam and Tawan?

Orawan, 23, described herself as an independent activist who has regularly participated in anti-government protests since 2020. She took part in a rally last August calling for the removal of electronic monitoring (EM) bracelets from all political activists on bail. She claimed she was fired after being forced to wear one.

According to Thai PBS, she was arrested on February 8, last year, after accompanying Tantawan to a busy Bangkok shopping mall to conduct a public opinion poll on royal motorcades.

Tantawan, 21, was a member of the anti-establishment We Volunteer (WeVo) group. On March 5, 2022, she was arrested while broadcasting live on Facebook as a royal motorcade passed protesters in front of the United Nations building in Bangkok. She went on a hunger strike for 37 days in detention before being released on bail in May of last year.

The pair were initially denied bail before it was granted with conditions, similar to how other protesters facing similar charges were treated. They were forced to wear EM bracelets and were barred from participating in political protests as part of their bail conditions.

However, both chose to have their temporary release revoked in solidarity with other activists who were denied bail after being charged with lèse majesté and other crimes related to their political activism. The request was granted by the Criminal Court, and the two women were remanded at the Central Women’s Correctional Institution.

Courts usually only cancel bail as a punishment for defendants who violate their temporary release conditions while awaiting trial.

 

Concern their Health is Growing

After three days of hunger strike, both activists were transferred to a hospital within the prison compound, despite their refusal to receive medical treatment.

After seven days without food or water, their condition deteriorated further, and they were transferred from the prison’s medical facility to Thammasat University Hospital in Pathum Thani province on January 24. On Saturday, the hospital reported that the couple had stopped refusing food but had begun drinking water. They had dangerously low blood sugar levels, as well as a mineral deficiency and abnormally high blood acidity.

Small protests in support of the pair and other detained activists were held throughout the city. The “Stand Against Detention” event, held outside the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, was one of them.

As Bam and Tawan continued to refuse food, activists and opposition politicians expressed their support. Many people, including government critics and supporters, as well as a Buddhist monk, pleaded with the pair to end their protest immediately as their health deteriorated.

On January 26, six opposition parties issued a joint statement urging authorities to solicit input on judicial reform from all relevant parties. They also called for defendants’ rights to temporary release to be considered “in a fair manner”.

However, opposition parties led by Pheu Thai and Move Forward stopped short of addressing the hunger-striking activists’ third demand: the removal of the lèse majesté and sedition clauses from the Criminal Code.

According to critics, the main opposition parties are likely afraid of taking any radical stance that might alienate conservative voters and hurt their chances in the general election, which is tentatively scheduled for May 7.

thailand protests

Political Pawns

Pheu Thai and Move Forward submitted an urgent motion for a House debate last Wednesday (Feb 1) to propose measures that the government could implement to save the lives of two hunger-striking activists. The following day, however, government and opposition politicians accused each other of using the pair as political pawns.

Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew called the activists’ third demand a “future matter” that should be addressed by all political parties in Parliament. He stated that any law with flaws should be amended, but he did not specifically mention the Criminal Code articles on lese majeste and sedition.

Cholnan, the opposition leader, claimed that the powers-that-failure be’s to act on the activists’ deteriorating health was an attempt to maintain power.

The coalition Democrat Party’s deputy leader, Ongart Klampaiboon, said his party opposed repealing the lèse majesté law but would not oppose any House motion to do so.

However, he stressed that “nobody should seek to make political gains from this hunger strike”.

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