Two young women have led a remarkable campaign in recent weeks highlighting free speech rights in Thailand starting by asking to have their bail revoked and launching a hunger strike which has seen them admitted to hospital for treatment. It is not yet clear if today’s court-ordered release of Ms Orawan or ‘Bam’ will lead her to cease her campaign which doctors told the court on Tuesday had become life-threatening.
A Thai court, on Tuesday, ordered the urgent release of one of two female hunger strikers after the Director of Thammasat University Hospital, in an urgent petition, warned that her medical condition had become life-threatening and there was a danger she could die in custody. The hospital chief said that high ketone levels in her body posed a particular threat. The court issued a warrant for her immediate release from the Central Women’s Correctional Institution in Bangkok under the Criminal Procedure Code.
A Thai court ordered the release of one of two female hunger strikers on Tuesday after the director of the hospital where she was being treated filed a petition saying that she had reached the point where her life was in danger.
On January 16th, the two women, 21-year-old Tantawan Tuatulanon or Tawan and 23-year-old Orawan Phupong known as Bam asked the Criminal Court to rescind their bail on lèse-majesté charges.
Two days later, on January 18th, the pair began their ‘dry’ hunger strike, initially refusing to eat and drink until authorities released all defendants being held on such charges who were denied bail before the courts.
Hunger strike campaign endorsed by international NGOs and activists in Thailand calling for abolition of Section 112 on lèse-majesté and bail rights
Two days later, Human Rights Watch, an NGO which operates in 100 countries worldwide, called on the Thai government to adhere to the UN-sponsored 1976 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Thailand is a signatory to and in particular, under Article 9 of that provision which reads: ‘It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.’
Since 2020, when Thai authorities again began prosecuting people under the country’s draconian lèse-majesté provision following a self-imposed moratorium at the request of Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn, hundreds of people have been charged, with the courts sometimes denying bail to those before it based on the likelihood of them reoffending and based on the severity of the penalty likely to be handed down on conviction.
Section 112 reactivated by the PM in November 2020 in response to violent street protests in Bangkok and more alarming rhetoric from those taking part
Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, reintroduced prosecutions under Section 112 following unprecedented violence and political rhetoric used by protesters in Bangkok in late 2020 including an attack on the Royal Thai Police headquarters.
The two young activists are calling for the abolition of Section 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code which provides for harsh penalties for anyone found guilty of defaming the country’s monarchy, a provision which Thai courts have interpreted as having a broad reach and through which stiff penalties are imposed, often with multiple consecutive sentences for each count or offence.
In January 2021, a casual activist, a retired female civil servant, received a jail term of eight seven years reduced to forty-three due to her cooperation after being convicted of sharing videos published by a political activist deemed offensive to the royal institution.
Legal provision has been abused for political purposes by those on the conservative right in Thailand to suppress the more progressive political agenda
The law, activists say, has also been abused by political players particularly on the conservative right in Thailand who can activate a police investigation by making a third-party complaint about any person and require it be acted upon at any local Police Station.
Such complaints have to be fully investigated by the police and are therefore quite likely to be referred to the courts.
The pretexts often cited are more progressive political comments made by politicians and other public figures which are seen as critical of the country’s traditional power structures.
Again in January 2021, the government itself used this procedure to report the Progressive Movement leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit because of critical comments relating to the kingdom’s COVID-19 vaccine programme.
Two young women have helped galvanise the street protest movement and its agenda ahead of the May 2023 General Election in a very conservative country
The two young women who went on hunger strike in January are also calling for the abolition of the Section 116 provision for sedition which has also been used against political activists since the outbreak of student-led protest in Thailand in July 2020 against the 2017 Constitution and what activists see as a lack of democracy in the kingdom.
The campaign by Ms Orawan and Ms Tantawan has again galvanised the support base for such protests among a network of activists and followers throughout the kingdom following a decline in popular support as the relatively conservative Thai public is averse to violent street protests and activities that disrupt day to day living.
Despite this, there is strong political support for change in Thailand with over 64% of voters, according to authoritative opinion polls, now supporting parties such as Pheu Thai Party and the more progressive Move Forward Party.
Pheu Thai, the country’s largest party and which is seeking a landslide in the May 2023 General Election, does not support the outright abolition of Section 112 but does favour limiting its use and what it sees as its abuse by political actors.
The Move Forward Party fully supports the street protest agenda including the abolition of Section 112 and stronger protections for freedom of speech in Thailand along western lines.
Decisive point on Tuesday for Ms Orawan Phupong or ‘Bam’ as Thammasat University Hospital boss urgently petitioned to Bangkok South Municipal Court
On Monday, doctors at Thammasat University Hospital, where the hunger-striking prisoners were being treated, reported a marked deterioration in the conditions of the two women including listlessness, bleeding gums and high ketone serum levels.
However, doctors said that they were still not in a critical condition and remained conscious.
On Tuesday, the Director of the hospital petitioned the Bangkok South Municipal Court for the temporary release of 23-year-old Bam or Ms Orawan Phupong saying her condition had reached a critical point.
The medical expert said that her condition could be life-threatening and on that basis, requested that the court order her release from detention.
He declared her medical condition unfit for detention and raised the possibility that if not released, the defendant before the court risked the possibility of death.
Warrant ordering the prisoner’s release issued
The court heard that the Central Women’s Correctional Institution accepted the medical opinion of the hospital that the defendant, Ms Orawan, was in critical condition and may be at risk of death.
On this basis, given the overriding importance of the prisoner’s life, it acquiesced to her temporary release without any surety.
It said it could not be sure that the defendant would not continue to cause harm to herself after such a release.
The court ordered Ms Orawan’s release under Section 71 paragraph 3 and Section 108 of the Criminal Procedure Code and issued a warrant to that effect.