Starving for Justice in Thailand

Starving for Justice in Thailand

Two political prisoners arrested for questioning the Thai monarchy have been on a life-threatening hunger strike for over a week. The government has met their demands for the right to free expression with silence.

Tantawan Tuatulanon and Orawan Phuphong before they announced their intentions to hunger strike on January 16. (Thai Lawyers for Human Rights)

On the afternoon of January 16, 2023, Tantawan Tuatulanon, or Tawan, and Orawan Phuphong, or Bam, walked into the Criminal Court in Bangkok and asked the judges to revoke their bail. Both are charged with lèse majesté, or Article 112 of the Criminal Code, which carries a three-to-fifteen-year sentence per count of defamation, insult, or threat to the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent. Bam was arrested after carrying out a public opinion poll about royal motorcades at a shopping mall on February 8, 2022, and Tawan was arrested while broadcasting live on Facebook while a royal motorcade passed her in front of the UN building on March 5, 2022.

Like many accused in political cases in Thailand, the pair’s allegedly criminal actions were forms of peaceful expression. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 227 people have been charged with lèse majesté since the democracy movement in early 2020. Although absolutism officially ended in Thailand in 1932, the monarchy has remained politically and economically powerful; the democracy movement, which dared to question its role in politics and called for its reform, has been treated as dangerously criminal. Since then, the streets have largely emptied because the risks for protesting are so high.

Tawan and Bam were initially denied bail in their cases before it was granted with significant stipulations: they were forced to wear electronic monitoring anklets and prohibited from joining political protests. Both chose to request the revocation of their bail to protest the ongoing denial of bail to prisoners accused of lèse majesté and other political crimes. The judges complied with their request, and the two women were immediately remanded to the Women’s Central Correctional Facility.

Before entering the court complex, Tawan and Bam were greeted outside the gates by supporters holding bright yellow sunflowers. Clad in plain white T-shirts and shorts, they announced three demands to those present and to those watching over social media. First, they demanded the reform of the justice system so that courts treat human rights and the right to freedom of expression as primary; they added that the system must be independent and free from external influence. Second, they called for an end to the prosecution of those exercising their right to political expression, and for the release of political prisoners. Third, they demanded that every political party propose a policy to guarantee the rights and liberty of the people by abolishing Articles 112 (lèse majesté) and 116 (sedition). If their demands were not met within forty-eight hours, they announced that they would commence a dry hunger strike, without food or water, that would continue until either the demands were met or they died. Tawan and Bam poured red paint over themselves and proclaimed their readiness to sacrifice their lives to protect freedom and then walked up the steps of the Criminal Court. Their demands were met with silence from the state. Tawan and Bam began their hunger strike on January 18.

A dry hunger strike puts the human body into crisis very quickly. Death can follow in a matter of days. Without food or water, their condition has deteriorated rapidly. They both lost over five kilograms and grew weak and dehydrated. By the sixth day, according to their attorneys, they were periodically losing consciousness, experiencing nausea and pain, and unable to sleep. Tawan fell in the bathroom and hit her head. Concerned that the Department of Corrections would hide the truth of their physical conditions, the pair refused treatment at the Department of Corrections Hospital and requested that they be transferred either to an external hospital or back to the Women’s Central Correctional Facility. Another political prisoner, Sittichok Setthasewote, currently imprisoned following a conviction of lèse majesté, has joined Tawan and Bam in their hunger strike by only drinking three small cartons of milk per day. Citizens outside prison have expressed solidarity with Tawan and Bam with daily protests and their own hunger strikes.

On the evening of January 24, the seventh day of their hunger strike, the Department of Corrections issued a statement that the pair’s condition was grave and they were being transferred from the prison hospital to Thammasat University Hospital. By January 25, their doctors reported that they were facing a dangerous lack of potassium and their hearts could stop beating. Tawan and Bam may die for calling for the protection of every Thai citizen’s fundamental human rights.

For far too long, the Thai authorities have used the law to restrict freedom and fundamental human rights. I echo the three demands made by Tawan and Bam, and add a fourth directed to the judiciary at every level: do not let these two young women starve to death. Release them and let this be the first step toward democracy in Thailand.

Tyrell Haberkorn is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at UW-Madison.