Young Thai activist on hunger strike in serious condition, needs treatment: rights groups

A file photo of Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon, who has been on a hunger strike since April 20. Photo: Thai Lawyers for Human Rights
A file photo of Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon, who has been on a hunger strike since April 20. Photo: Thai Lawyers for Human Rights

Human rights campaigners and pro-democracy activists are calling for Thai authorities to release a young activist who has been on a hunger strike for over a month. 

The authorities have been holding a number of young monarchy reform campaigners, and in recent days calls have grown for them to drop the case against a 20-year-old activist who has been on a hunger strike for over a month and reportedly requires medical attention.

Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon has not eaten anything except milk or water since April 20 to protest her ongoing pre-trial detention and should be immediately transferred to a hospital, legal reform group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said yesterday. It said her life was in danger as her hunger strike continues, adding that the activist could barely move and faints several times a day. She also suffers from bleeding gums and weight loss. 

“This is unacceptable injustice and another example of the government waging war against pro-democracy students. Tawan must be released!” the women-led rights group Manushya Foundation said in a statement.

Progressive commentator and former talk show host Winyu “John” Wongsurawat said the public should rally to her aid.

“Tawan is in a very critical condition – she’s weak, faints often, and her gums are bleeding. Where is the justice in this country?” he said in a Monday tweet. “Let’s make our voices heard. She fights so much for democratic principles. Do not let this kind of subversion continue.”

Tawan’s case stems from an opinion poll she initiated earlier this year about the royal motorcades which can tie up Bangkok’s already abysmal traffic. She also live-streamed a video from one such motorcade on Ratchadamnoen Nok Road. She has been charged with insulting the royal family – a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison – and violating the Computer Crime Act. 

Tawan was first put behind bars March 5 before being briefly released and rearrested in April. She was subsequently denied bail twice, including on April 20, after which she began her hunger strike. 

The Criminal Court will consider her release on a bond again at 10am on Thursday. 

She is one of several young monarchy reform activists currently incarcerated. Others include Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom, Nutthanit “Bai Por” Duangmusit, and Sophon “Get” Surariddhidhamrong. 

“Thai authorities should drop the cases against Tantawan and others unjustly charged for their peaceful protests demanding reforms, or at least be immediately released on bail,” said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Holding activists in lengthy pre-trial detention for the peaceful exercise of their rights is punitive and unjust.”

The number of lese majeste cases in Thailand has increased significantly in the past year, according to the Human Rights Watch. After a nearly three-year hiatus in which no new lese majeste cases were brought before the courts, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha in late 2020 ordered the authorities to resume lese majeste prosecutions, ostensibly because of growing, open criticism of the royal family. Since then, officials have charged more than 200 people with lese majeste crimes in relation to various activities at pro-democracy rallies or comments on social media.

“The Thai government should stop punishing peaceful dissenters and demonstrate respect for human rights by permitting all viewpoints,” Pearson added. “The authorities in Thailand should engage with United Nations experts and others about amending the lese majeste law to bring it into compliance with international human rights law obligations.”

The case has led to some veiled criticism of the courts, which can also be prosecuted as a crime. In one cartoon circulating online, a sunflower (Tantawan means “sunflower”) is being used as a stepping stool by a judge.

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