Thai Monarchy Reform Activist Dies in Custody After Months-Long Hunger Strike

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Thai Monarchy Reform Activist Dies in Custody After Months-Long Hunger Strike

The death of Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom has drawn attention to the Thai government’s cruel use of pretrial detention to silence peaceful critics of the monarchy.

Thai Monarchy Reform Activist Dies in Custody After Months-Long Hunger Strike

Thai activists hold candles during a vigil for Netiporn Sanesangkhom, a member of the monarchy reform group Thalu Wang, outside the Criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, May 14, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

A young activist who was jailed in Thailand for advocating reform of the country’s monarchy died yesterday in a prison hospital after going on a hunger strike, Thai officials said. Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom, 28, was a member of the activist group Thalu Wang, which called for reforms in the Thai monarchy and the repeal of Article 112 of the country’s penal code, also known as the lese-majeste law, which criminalizes critical comments about the institution.

Netiporn had been in detention since January 26, when she began a partial hunger strike to protest Thailand’s use of its lese majeste law to punish critics of the monarchy. For more than two months, she reportedly refused food, water, and all forms of medication. She resumed eating and drinking in early April after being transferred to a hospital, but still rejected electrolytes and vitamins, the Department of Corrections said in a statement yesterday.

The Department said that Netiporn suffered cardiac arrest early yesterday morning, and was transferred to Thammasat University Hospital, where medical teams spent several hours trying to resuscitate her. She was pronounced dead just before noon.

Late yesterday, activists held a candlelight vigil in her memory outside Bangkok’s Criminal Court, and other events were also scheduled in several cities in northern Thailand. Amnesty International Thailand described Netiporn’s death as “a shocking reminder that Thai authorities are denying activists their right to temporary release on bail and using detention to silence the peaceful expression of dissent.”

As news of her death broke yesterday, ambassadors from a number of Western nations, including Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, the European Union, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States, offered their condolences to Netiporn’s family and friends.

Netiporn was an active participant in the pro-democracy demonstrations that took place in Thailand in 2020 and 2021. The protests, which followed the court-ordered dissolution of the progressive Future Forward Party in February of that year, were notable in airing rare calls for reform of the monarchy, and of the lese-majeste law, which has been used to ring-fence the royal institution from effective public scrutiny. Thalu Wang, which translates as “Shattering the Palace,” was formed in 2022, with the aim of reforming Article 112 as the first step to encouraging greater scrutiny of the monarchy and its power.

As in many other cases, advocating the reform of Article 112 was itself viewed as a breach of Article 112. Among the seven charges faced by Netiporn, two were under the lese-majeste law. The first related to an incident in February 2022 in which she conducted a public poll on the traffic snarls and other inconveniences caused by royal motorcades, and the second to a protest later that year in which she held a sign that read: “Do you agree that the government allows the king to use power however he pleases?”

She subsequently spent two months in prison on the Article 112 charges before being released on bail in August 2022. She was detained again in late January 2024, after the Bangkok South Criminal Court revoked her bail in the Article 112 case due to her participation in a political rally, and sentenced her to one month in prison for contempt of court.

The death has shocked Thailand’s close-knit circle of pro-democracy activists, and highlighted the injustice of the Thai government’s “use of arbitrary arrest and pretrial detention to punish critics of the monarchy.” According to the advocacy group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, more than 260 people currently face lese-majeste charges, most of them leaders and participants of the 2020-2021 protests. In January, a Chiang Rai man was imprisoned for 50 years for social media posts deemed damaging to the king. It was the longest-ever sentence handed down, exceeding the previous record of 43 years, set in 2021.

The advent last year of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and his Pheu Thai-led government has done little to reduce the pressure on political prisoners. Vulnerable to criticisms of being “soft” on critics of the monarchy, Srettha has vowed to continue strict enforcement of Article 112.

In an interview with The Guardian, one activist appeared to compare the cruel punishment faced by young critics of the monarchy with the soft treatment granted to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who returned last year from self-imposed exile to serve an eight-year prison term on corruption charges. Thaksin’s prison term was swiftly reduced to a single year by a royal pardon, and the billionaire former leader then spent six months in a private room in a police hospital for an undisclosed health condition before being granted parole in February.

Speaking at a candlelight vigil outside of the Criminal Court in Bangkok last night, Panusaya Sitthijirawattanakul, another activist facing lese-majeste charges, told The Associated Press that Prime Minister Srettha had failed to ease the plight of political prisoners. “Do you need someone to die first before you think of doing something?” the news agency quoted her as saying. “How many of us have to die before you start listening to us? We are not people to be scared of. We’re just ordinary people who are asking for something. So this is very brutal.”

The popular opposition Move Forward Party, also issued a statement saying that people should not be jailed for holding political opinions and that anybody accused of a political offense should be granted bail. Like its predecessor Future Forward, the MFP currently faces dissolution by the Constitutional Court for calling for revisions to the lese-majeste law.