Muted response as hunger strikers hit 50 days
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Muted response as hunger strikers hit 50 days

Politicians reluctant to even discuss lese majeste law in run-up to election

Hunger-striking activist Tantawan
Hunger-striking activist Tantawan "Tawan" Tuatulanon is placed in an ambulance before being moved from Thammasat University Hospital to the Supreme Court on Feb 24. A week later she and Orawan Phupong were taken back to hospital. (Photo: AFP)

Two young protesters entered the 50th day of a hunger strike for bail rights and judicial reform on Wednesday, but in the run-up to an election and with the government cracking down on dissent, the response to their marathon action has been muted.

Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon and Orawan “Bam” Phupong have been in and out of court and hospital since beginning their hunger strike on Jan 18 to seek the release of political detainees and abolition of the lese-majeste and sedition laws.

They are currently in Thammasat University Hospital, having been rushed there in critical condition last Friday evening after spending a week outside the Supreme Court with a few dozen supporters. Few updates have been released about their condition.

But with mainstream politicians focused on the upcoming polls and many activists fearful of being charged with royal defamation themselves if they voice support, even after seven weeks of fasting the pair’s protest is not making waves.

“There were many people at the beginning, but as the protest continues, fewer people have come,” said Krisadang Nutcharus, from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a legal aid group that handles many royal insult cases.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha has pleaded with the women’s families to “monitor” their behaviour.

Opposition parties have stopped short of backing the activists’ calls for reform, reluctant to get entangled in the highly sensitive question of the monarchy so close to an election.

Only the Move Forward Party has reform of Section 112 of the Criminal Code, the lese-majeste law, as part of its official policy platform. It proposes reducing jail terms from the current 3-15 years, and that only the Palace should be able to file a royal defamation complaint with police.

Under the current law, anyone can file a lese-majeste complaint and police are obliged to investigate it. Consequently, many complaints are filed by people with political agendas who wish to silence opposition voices. 

Meanwhile, there has been little action on Bangkok’s streets, which were brought to a standstill by mass youth-led protests in 2020 and 2021 that included demands for changes to Section 112.

Ms Tantawan, 21, and Ms Orawan, 23, were charged in 2022 with lese-majeste in connection with a public poll they conducted asking for people’s opinions about royal motorcades. They were out on bail but went to court on Jan 16 to request the revocation of their bail as a gesture of solidarity with detained colleagues. They began their hunger strike two days later.

On Jan 30 they were taken to Thammasat University Hospital as their condition worsened, but they discharged themselves on Feb 24 and moved their protest to the Supreme Court. After a week they were back in hospital where they are conscious and receiving electrolytes, Mr Krisadang said. (Story continues below)

A woman stands next to a poster outside the Supreme Court, where a few dozen supporters of hunger strikers Tantawan Tuatulanon and Orawan Phupong gathered while the pair were staying there. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)

‘Repressive environment’

Since the protest movement began in July 2020, TLHR says more than 200 people have been charged under Section 112, which orders up to 15 years in jail for anyone who “defames, insults or threatens” the king or his immediate family.

Rights groups say the law is abused to silence political dissent, and the sentences handed out can be severe — one woman got 43 years in prison in 2021.

At least 17 minors are facing prosecution, and on Tuesday a man was jailed for two years for selling a satirical calendar featuring yellow rubber ducks that a court ruled was insulting to the king.

“Under this repressive environment people are fearing to come out, and speak out, and demand democracy and any other causes that they want,” Amnesty International researcher Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong told AFP.

“I think that partly contributes to the overall silence that we are seeing right now.”

Mr Chanatip said the election, expected sometime in May, has added to peoples’ fear of a tougher government crackdown.

“Many people may have this assessment and decide to refrain from speaking out further,” he said.

Napisa Waitoolkiat, a political analyst at Naresuan University, said media attention on the election meant there was little room for other reporting.

In addition to that, she continued, the increasing use of the lese-majeste law was “creating fear”.

“It doesn’t mean that the pro-democracy movement has disappeared, or that Thai people do not pay attention. But it is less now,” she said.

With journalists outnumbering supporters outside Thammasat University Hospital, the two women’s strike goes on — and their condition worsens.

Lawyer Krisadang said the women were determined to fight for their cause, even if public interest was low.

“These kids are still sticking with their ideology. If they prove they are right, (the public) will support them,” he said.

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