Food for thought
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Food for thought

A hunger strike campaign by two young political activists demanding the release of all political prisoners as well as the abolition of the lese majeste and sedition laws has drawn concern from across the political spectrum.

Their self-destructive campaign poses a challenge in terms of how Thailand will balance the application of the strict lese majeste law while permitting freedom of expression in a more open society.

The health of both female activists — Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon and Orawan “Bam” Phupong, who are 21 and 23 years old, respectively — has become precarious as they have been fasting since Jan 19, and have refused the court’s offers to apply for bail.

Many rights groups have sent petitions asking the government to release them and reform the law so people can express themselves more freely without fear of punishment.

Even Somsak Jeamteerasakul, who has been living in exile after facing a lese majeste charge, has asked both women to stop their hunger strike and target longer-haul political campaigns. Early this week, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered a medical team at Thammasat University Hospital to give them extra care as their health worsens.

“As they are Thai people, the prime minister wishes both activists are safe,” Auncha Nakasai, minister of the PM’s Office, quoted Gen Prayut as saying on Monday. “(He) has been worried about the political movement of the young generation. He asks for cooperation from parents to look after their children and make sure they are not politically exploited.”

While Gen Prayut’s sympathy is welcome, his messages are also disturbing and unproductive. It is shocking to hear the man who, after staging the coup in 2014, promised “peace and reconciliation” so easily discount the credibility of young political activists, and try to position them as the pawns of political groups. His words will only further alienate dissidents. Perhaps now we can understand why his national reconciliation plan remains half-baked, and young activists have grown more alienated and even radicalised during his eight-year tenure.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), 1,890 people have faced charges for engaging in politics or expressing their political views since the beginning of the Free Youth pro-democracy protests in July 2020. Of those, 284 were aged 15 to 18 years, while 41 were under 15. Of the ensuing lawsuits, at least 108 were filed by regular citizens, while the rest came from state bodies.

Make no mistake, the lese majeste laws have been part of the country’s political culture and are needed to protect the revered institution. Yet the application of this law needs fine-tuning to plug the loopholes that let it be used as a tool to silence political opponents.

For example, the law allows anyone to file a charge and carries a heavy punishment of three to 15 years in jail for the crime of “defaming, insulting or threatening the monarchy”. Because these terms are not clearly defined, they can be abused by extreme royalist groups in the opposition camp.

What society needs is an open mind and a safe space where people with different ideas can engage in peaceful dialogue.

Hopefully, these two activists will ditch this self-destructive path. They have won praise for their conviction, but the only way to solve differences of this magnitude is through peaceful dialogue and goodwill negotiations. Ideally, they will save themselves for this.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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