Jailed Thai activists on hunger strike over royal defamation charges

BANGKOK, 3 Feb 2023:

Two activists jailed in Thailand for conducting a street survey on the royal family suffer from health problems as a result of a hunger strike that began two weeks ago after entering prison, their lawyers and hospital sources reported yesterday.

Orawan Phuphong, 23, and Tantawan Tuatulanon, 21, stopped eating and drinking on Jan 18 after being arrested two days earlier – deciding to void their own bail to demand the release of other political activists and legal reforms, including the repeal of the royal defamation law.

Article 112 of the Thai Penal Code establishes penalties of between three and 15 years in prison for those who defame, insult or threaten the king, queen or crown prince – it is one of the world’s most draconian laws to protect a monarchy.

Both activists are accused under this law for carrying out an unofficial survey in a shopping centre where they asked people their opinion about the convoys of the royal household, which lead to the road closures and cause large traffic jams.

Thammasat University Hospital, where they were taken on their second day of hunger strike, said in a statement Wednesday that Tantawan is suffering from nosebleeds and bleeding gums, among other conditions, while Orawan is experiencing chest and stomach pains among other problems.

Activists still refuse to eat food, but have agreed to take “sips of water,” said the hospital and the organisation Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) that represent them.

The protest initiated by the activists opened a political debate, where several opposition parties demand an urgent reform of the judicial system and the conditions of preventive detention – which include the denial of bail, travel limitations and freedom of expression, among other restrictions.

The justice ministry responded Wednesday in a statement that it would create a commission to review the current preventive detention and reconsider house arrest for cases related to political expression.

TLHR denounces the increase in royal defamation cases in Thailand since November 2020, when the government resumed the application of said regulations to stifle the pro-democracy movement led by university students in court.

This movement led massive protests in mid-2020 and managed to open public debate on the role of the all-powerful Thai monarchy in today’s society, which has lost supporters among Thais in recent years.

At least 215 people, including minors, have been charged with lese majesty since November 2020, according to TLHR, while another 1,888 – including 283 minors – were charged with crimes related to protests or their political expressions.

Separately, Thailand’s capital yesterday charted high levels of air pollution for a second day running, breaching the US’ “Unhealthy” quality index threshold and making it among the most polluted in the world, as predictions set this trend to continue into the weekend.

The level of smog in Bangkok is defined to increase the “likelihood of adverse effects and aggravation to the heart and lungs among the general public” as the index stood at 197 on the Air Quality Index metric, three points shy of a “Very Unhealthy” rating.

The scale classifies satisfactory quality to be below 50, according to the Air Visual website, which measures air pollution worldwide.

Bangkok ranked third in the world’s most polluted cities behind Lahore in India and Kuwait City.

Levels of PM2.5 levels (particles below 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter) rose to 108 micrograms per cubic metre (mcg/m³), a concentration 21.7 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s annual air quality reference value and was predicted to rise even further in coming days.

PM2.5 particles are small enough to be directly absorbed into the bloodstream upon inhalation.

Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt called on government agencies to work from home yesterday and today, except for those that work with public attention, and encouraged the free distribution of masks with filters.

He also prohibited the circulation of vehicles with diesel engines with emissions higher than the stipulated norm on the roads and requested that the population refrain from carrying out open-air burning of either grass or waste, a common practice in the dry season in the country.

Chadchart said there is currently no need to close schools, adding that students must wear masks “at all times, inside and outside buildings” and prohibited all outdoor activities.

Air pollution is a recurring problem in Thailand during the dry season, which runs from October to April, due to a combination of factors including heavy traffic, construction, industrial activity and fires caused by the agricultural sector.