Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon poses for a photo on 24 March 2022 during an interview with Prachatai. 

Jailed activist’s hunger strike enters 22nd day, more lèse majeste arrests

In a new surge of detentions, six people are in jail in connection with the royal defamation law – five of them denied bail to contest the charges outside prison. A human rights lawyer said the move illustrates the authorities’ obsession with smothering any public criticism of the monarchy. 

Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon poses for a photo on 24 March 2022 during an interview with Prachatai. 

BANGKOK — A 20-year-old activist currently in prison for trying to observe a royal motorcade pledged to continue her hunger strike to protest her pre-trial detention, one of her defense lawyers said. 

Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon, who began her hunger strike a day after she was sent to jail on 20 April, has already fainted at least once, her lawyer said. She’s one of six people who are imprisoned on allegations that they defamed the monarchy, a charge also known as lèse majeste. On Tuesday night, two more people were arrested on the same charge, though they were granted bail. 

“She’s in a weak state right now,” Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen, an attorney with Thai Lawyers for Human Rights who represents Tantawan, said by phone on Wednesday. “She insists she will continue her hunger strike indefinitely to demand her right to bail.”

Poonsuk added that Tantawan still drinks milk from time to time, while prison physicians recently performed a check-up on her and found that her blood sugar level is low.

Tantawan was charged with royal defamation under Section 112 of the Criminal Code after she attempted to livestream a royal motorcade in Bangkok on 5 March. Two days later, the court released her on bail with a set of controversial conditions that banned her from “committing any act that may damage or denigrate the monarchy” and from encouraging others to join political demonstrations. She was also ordered to wear an electronic monitoring device, or EM. 

Police later asked the court to revoke her bail after she wrote online about her intention to be present at the route that King Vajiralongkorn was traveling on 17 March; investigators accused her of attempting to cause unrest. The court agreed and ruled on 20 April that Tantawan violated her bail conditions, sending her to a women’s prison as she awaits trial.

If found guilty, she faces up to 15 years in jail. 

In a message relayed through her lawyers from inside the prison, Tantawan said she had no regrets.

“In this place, I have to adjust a lot,” Tantawan was quoted as saying. “Sometimes I feel down and discouraged, even though I already steeled myself to face this. At night, I can’t sleep. When I dream, I also dream of being in prison. But I certainly won’t give up. When I’m freed, I will carry on fighting, and if I could turn back time, I would do the same.” 

Two activists were also arrested on the night of 10 May on royal defamation charges. 

Kritsaphon Sirikittikul, or “Joseph,” and a woman identified only as “Mint” were accused of defaming the monarchy through speeches they made on Chakri Memorial Day, or 6 April, in which they discussed the death of King Taksin in 1782. King Taksin was overthrown in a putsch by King Rama I, the founder of Chakri Dynasty, and later executed on his orders. 

The pair were granted bail on the next day, Poonsuk said. 

A surge in jailings 

Tantawan is one of the 194 individuals who have been charged with royal defamation since the government launched a salvo of legal actions in response to the monarchy reform protests in November 2020. 

A banner with a message "Abolish [Section] 112 = Exposing the truth" placed in a protest at Chiang Mai.

Just weeks ago, in early April, it seemed the sweeping crackdown was coming to a pause. Activists and monarchy critics who were previously imprisoned on royal defamation charges were all freed on bail – with the notable exception of ‘Anchan,’ a 63-year-old woman who has been behind bars for a lèse majesté conviction since January 2021. 

But that has changed in recent days. Six people, Tantawan among them, are now in prison in connection with Section 112, Poonsuk said. 

Others include Baipor Nattanich and Netiporn Sanesangkhom, the two women who staged repeated public surveys in central Bangkok asking passers-by their opinions about the monarchy, such as whether they believe traffic closures from royal motorcades caused frustrations in their lives. 

Baipor and Netiporn were sent to prison on 3 May after the court revoked their bail, citing their actions as “causing unrest” and breaching bail conditions. 

Speaking to reporters before the ruling, Baipor maintained she did nothing wrong, since she was merely posing questions to members of the public, who were encouraged to answer on their own terms. 

“The public is free to participate in this activity,” Baipor said. “Organizing surveys is asking questions. It’s not just about the monarchy. Questions can be asked about other topics as well, like the government and other issues.”

Netiporn (left) and Baipor (right) give the media an interview.

Another dissident behind bars is Sopon Surariddhidhamrong, who was arrested on 1 May just as he was leaving a rally to mark International Labour Day. Police accused him of insulting Queen Suthida in a speech he gave at a protest on 22 April. He was subsequently denied bail. 

 

Anti-government activist Weha Saenchonchanasuek was also denied bail and sent to prison after police arrested him on 10 March on the allegations that he made 2 Facebook posts that defamed the monarchy. 

Former Redshirt volunteer guard commander Sombat Thongyoi, meanwhile, was sentenced to six years in prison by the Criminal Court on 28 April after finding him guilty of royal defamation. One of his offenses, the court said in its verdict, was reposting the 2020 quote by King Vajiralongkorn “Very brave, very good, thank you,” on social media in a sarcastic fashion.

“The defendant’s action is therefore considered a mockery of His Majesty the King, an unacceptable action that violates, defames and insults the monarch,” the court said. 

Poonsuk, the attorney from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, said all of the jailings except Sombat’s were pretrial detention, but even Sombat’s imprisonment was questionable because his case has yet to reach the final verdict by the Supreme Court. 

Critics have repeatedly raised questions about the court’s practice of denying bail to individuals accused of royal defamation, even as suspects in far more serious cases like manslaughter and sexual assault are allowed to walk free. 

When asked to comment on the new surge of activists being jailed, the lawyer said it is clear that the authorities are trying to silence anyone who comes out to criticize the monarchy in public. 

“In fact, the people who were active prior to this are laying low for now,” Poonsuk said, referring to the activists who were freed in March and banned by the court from participating in protests. 

“The new group that were arrested is the people that are still campaigning and they’re campaigning about sensitive issues like the monarchy,” she added. “So I don’t think it’s really a new surge. The officials are keeping their eyes open and watching this all the time. As soon as anyone does something, they’ll be arrested.” 

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