Sympathy, but little support for protest
published : 6 Feb 2023 at 04:30
newspaper section: News
The young pro-democracy activists Tantawan "Tawan" Tuatulanon and Orawan "Bam" Phuphong appear determined to put themselves on a path of self-destruction for their cause.
Tantawan, 21, and Orawan, 23, have been on a hunger strike since Jan 19 since they voluntarily revoked their own bail and two weeks ago were sent back to the Central Women's Correctional Institute where they carried on with their hunger strike. They were later sent to Thammasat University Hospital for treatment.
Both have campaigned for reform of the monarchy and ending Section 112 (the lese majeste law) of the Criminal Code and sedition laws. They faced lese majeste charges for launching a campaign to gather public opinion on royal motorcades in February last year.
Despite being granted bail on condition that they stay away from protests, both have actively joined them, the latest one during the Apec meeting in November.
According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), 1,890 people have faced charges for political participation and expression since the beginning of the Free Youth pro-democracy protests in July 2020.
Of the people charged, 284 are aged 15 to 18 years, and 41 are under 15. At least 228 are facing lese majeste charges and 128 have been charged with sedition.
For the latest hunger strike, the two young women have made three demands: justice reform; release of all "political" prisoners and detainees, and for parties to call for the abolition of the lese majese and sedition laws.
According to Thammasat University Hospital, the hunger strikers still refuse to eat, but have agreed to sip water. They appear weak, exhausted and suffer from chest pain, nosebleeds and bleeding gums which are symptoms associated with starvation. Nevertheless, both have vowed to carry on with their hunger strike.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) say doctors have inserted a syringe in their hand in case their condition worsens.
The opposition Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties have backed the hunger strikers' first two demands: justice system reform and release of "political" prisoners and detainees. However, they stop short of supporting the call for abolition of the lese majeste and sedition laws.
The lese majeste law is regarded as a sensitive issue. With the election about three months away if parliament runs its course, the parties are reluctant to run the risk of being accused of opposing the monarchy. Also, calls for the abolition of the lese majeste law can result in a backlash from royalists.
The parties should know that, technically, the court cannot order a blanket release of prisoners or detainees unless an amnesty law is passed first. What the court can do is consider each case on a case by case basis and ease restrictions on bail requirements.
In contrast with previous years, public support for the hunger strikers is relatively soft. The media has shifted its focus to the upcoming election and scandals concerning fraud and corruption.
People tend to be more concerned with making a living at a time when food has become so expensive.
Even among their supporters, support has dwindled significantly of late. Calls for a recent "car mob" protest saw a few hundred turn out.
Big-name protesters who made headlines in previous protests such as Parit Chiwarak, Panusaya Sitthijirawattanakul and Sombat Boonngamanong who initiated the "car mob" protest have not been seen at recent protests.
The monarchy reform movement seems to have lost momentum, at least for the time being.
Tantawan and Orawan should be commended for their steely hearts and resolve for their cause. But the hunger strike looks to have little chance of success. There has been no response from the government nor the public in general.
Their self-destructive protest has made some headway, at least in one respect -- that is the EM tags used to monitor suspects on bail. The Criminal Court last week agreed to remove the device from five protesters currently on bail including Jatupat "Pai Dao Din" Boonpattararaksa.
Somsak Jeamteerasakul, exiled former Thammasat University lecturer, said someone should tell the hunger strikers they have done their best and should end their hunger strike.
That responsibility rests with the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights which has been fighting political cases in court on behalf of protesters and whose members regularly visit the hunger strikers.
I couldn't agree more with Mr Somsak's concern for their deteriorating health and praise for their resolve. End the hunger strike now, and save yourselves for the next battle. The path to success is rocky and long.
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.