Two young activists who staged a 52-day hunger strike to press for the release of political prisoners and abolition of the lese-majeste law have hit the campaign trail again, asking political parties to take a stand on the sensitive issue.
Tantawan Tuatulanon and Orawan Phuphong were discharged from Thammasat University Hospital on Thursday, 12 days after announcing the end of the hunger strike that had left them at severe risk of permanent damage to their health.
Within hours they were in Ayutthaya, attending a Pheu Thai Party campaign event for the May 14 general election. Carrying a large placard, they began to circulate through the crowd, asking party faithful to mark down whether they favoured repealing Section 112 of the Criminal Code, the royal defamation law. A second question asked whether freedom and economic prosperity were possible at the same time.
As the two women approached the stage, video showed a security guard briefly trying to restrain them, but they were eventually allowed onstage. Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the face of the party and presumptive prime ministerial candidate, made some general remarks about freedom of expression and the moment passed without incident.
Like most parties campaigning for the May 14 poll, Pheu Thai does not want to make lese-majeste an issue, or even mention it at all, beyond saying that is open to discussing possible amendments.
Only Move Forward has an explicit policy proposal to reform the law to reduce the current harsh punishments. The party also says that only the Bureau of the Royal Household should be allowed to file criminal complaints. Currently, anyone can file a lese-majeste complaint against anybody else and the police are obliged to investigate it.
But even Move Forward is now being tested to see how keenly it wants to pursue the proposal as it campaigns for votes.
On Friday evening, Ms Tantawan and Ms Orawan — Tawan and Bam to their supporters — took their campaign to a Move Forward rally in Chon Buri, where they found an enthusiastic reception. Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat even invited them onstage and expressed support for their efforts.
The pair say they intend to visit all the parties, even the “dictatorial” ones, on the campaign trail to find out where their leaders and supporters stand on the lese-majeste issue.
If their itinerary includes the United Thai Nation (UTN) party fronted by the acting prime minister, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the reception might be less than warm. One of the big names who joined the party this week is Dr Rienthong Nanna, a ultra-royalist vigilante infamous for inciting supporters to go after reformist activists.
Ms Tantawan, 21, and Ms Orawan, 23, are themselves facing charges under Section 112. Ms Tantawan was arrested while broadcasting live on Facebook as a royal motorcade was passing protesters in front of the UN building in Bangkok. Ms Orawan was arrested when she joined her friend to take a public poll about royal motorcades in front of the Siam Paragon shopping mall.
According to data from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights to Feb 28, 2023, 1,895 people have been prosecuted for political participation and expression since the beginning of the Free Youth pro-democracy protests in July 2020. At least 233 are facing lese-majeste charges and 128 have been charged with sedition.
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