Muted reaction as Thai hunger strikers hit 50 days

BANGKOK: Two young protesters being held under Thailand’s tough royal insult law went on their 50th day of hunger strike on Wednesday, but ahead of a general election and with the government’s crackdown on dissent, the response to their marathon action has been muted.

Tantawan Tuatulanon and Orawan Phupong have been in court and out of hospital since they began their hunger strike on January 18 to urge political parties to support the abolition of the kingdom’s strict lèse-majesté laws.

But with mainstream politicians focused on the upcoming election and many activists fearing being charged with lese-majeste themselves if they expressed their support, the couple’s protest is making no waves even after seven weeks of starvation.

“In the beginning there were a lot of people, but the longer the protest goes on, the fewer people come,” said Krisadang Nootjaras of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a legal aid group that handles many royal libel cases.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha, a conservative former army chief who came to power in a 2014 coup, has asked the women’s families to “monitor” their behavior.

Opposition parties have not backed Tantawan and Orawan’s calls for reform, reluctant to get bogged down in the highly sensitive issue of the monarchy so close to an election.

And there was little movement on Bangkok’s streets, brought to a halt by youth-led mass protests in 2020 and 2021 that included calls for changes to the royal insult law.

Tantawan, 21, and Orawan, 23, were released from custody last month when their condition worsened and they are now conscious in hospital receiving electrolytes, Krisadang said.

They were charged with lese majesté over two protests in Bangkok in 2022.

Since the protest movement erupted in July 2020, more than 200 people have been charged under Article 112 of the Criminal Code, which orders up to 15 years in prison for anyone who “defames, insults or threatens” the King or his immediate family, according to TLHR. .

“Repressive Environment”

Human rights groups say the law is being used to silence political dissent and the penalties imposed can be harsh – a woman was sentenced to 43 years in prison in 2021.

At least 17 minors are being prosecuted and on Tuesday a man was sentenced to two years in prison for selling a satirical yellow rubber duck calendar that a court said insulted the king.

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

“I think that partly contributes to the general silence that we’re seeing right now.”

Chanatip said the election, which is expected sometime in May, has increased people’s fears of a tougher government crackdown.

“Many people may have that assessment and decide not to speak out further,” he said.

Napisa Waitoolkiat, a political analyst at Naresuan University, said media attention to the election means there is little room for other coverage.

Furthermore, she continued, the increasing use of the lèse-majesté law creates “fear”.

“It doesn’t mean that the pro-democracy movement is gone or that Thais aren’t paying attention. But now it’s less,” she said.

With more journalists than supporters outside Orawan and Tantawan hospital, their strike continues – and their condition worsens.

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

“These kids still hold onto their ideology. If they prove they’re right, (the public) will support them,” he said. -AFP Muted reaction as Thai hunger strikers hit 50 days

Russell Falcon

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