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Thailand: Activist's death intensifies calls for reform

Tommy Walker in Bangkok
May 21, 2024

Last week's death in custody of pro-democracy activist Netiporn "Bung" Sanesangkhom has raised concerns about freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Thailand.

Protesters demand reform of the monarchy outside the APEC 2022 Economic Leaders Week in Bangkok, Thailand
Student-led protests beginning in 2020 openly criticized Thailand's monarchy, leading to vigorous prosecutions under the 'lese majeste' lawImage: Stringer/AA/picture alliance

Political activist Netiporn "Bung" Sanesangkhom suffered cardiac arrest last Tuesday morning and was pronounced dead just before noon, according to a statement from Thailand's Corrections Department.

The 28-year-old woman died in pre-trial detention, not long after coming off hunger strike. She was facing trial for "insulting" Thailand's royal family.

Bung had two charges of lese majeste pending against her, both of them involving conducting polls in public spaces in 2022 asking people's opinion about the royal family, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a legal aid group.

Netiporn 'Bung' Sanesangkhom (C) with members of the 'Bad Student' group during a 2022 protest in Bangkok, Thailand
Netiporn 'Bung' Sanesangkhom (center) is the first activist to die in custody since the outbreak of youth-led protests in 2020 Image: Panu Wongcha-Um/REUTERS

What led to Bung's death?

Bung had been staunchly opposed to Thailand's taboo lese majeste law, which is one of the strictest in the world and carries lengthy prison sentences — up to 15 years per offense — for those who criticize the monarchy.

She had been imprisoned since January 26, initially Netiporn was held for one month on a contempt of court charge related to a scuffle with court guards in 2023, TLHR said.

Her pre-trial detention was extended after a court revoked her bail from a separate royal insult case stemming from a protest in 2022, the legal aid group said.

Bung began her hunger strike on January 27 to advocate for a reform of the Thai monarchy and to demand that nobody be imprisoned for holding or expressing dissenting opinions.

She started drinking water in late February, and then eating in April after she was sent to a prison hospital because of her deteriorating health, according to the legal aid group.

Netiporn's heart "stopped suddenly" on Tuesday, the Corrections Department said in a statement, and the medical team at the prison hospital tried to revive her before sending her to Thammasat University hospital where she was declared dead.

Bung's death has shone a light on the conditions of Thailand's political activists, with observers and experts calling her death as "senseless."

"Bung's death is yet another evidence that the lese majeste problems are very much alive under the Pheu Thai government," Akarachai Chaimaneekarakate, advocacy lead at TLHR, told DW, referring to Thailand's ruling party.

Human Rights Watch has raised concerns over "the Thai government's use of arbitrary arrest and pretrial detention to punish critics of the monarchy for their views," which it says is a violation of their rights under international human rights law.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said that Bung's death was "sad," and extended his condolences to her family. He said an investigation into her death will take place.

Activists at risk

But there are concerns over the health risks for other political activists who are also facing serious charges.

Thai police in February arrested two activists, Tantawan Tuatulanon and Nattanon Chaimahabutr, on sedition charges after they reportedly tried to interfere with a royal motorcade.

Thailand King Maha Vajiralongkorn
King Maha Vajiralongkorn has taken significant steps to consolidate the monarchy's financial and military power, adding to his unpopularity among Thai youthImage: Guillaume Payen/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

The motorcade incident triggered a public row that escalated into brawls between ultra-royalists and monarchy-reform activists that left more than a dozen people injured.

Mookdapa Yangyuenpradorn, a Thailand human rights associate at Fortify Rights, an organization that defends human rights, said Thailand's political activists see no other way to draw attention to their cause.

"We are seeing this happen, a pattern, more and more in recent years. Hunger strike is like one of the methods that they use to express how unfair they think the judicial system is," she told DW.

Is anything being done to protect activists?

There are currently 43 political prisoners in detention, with 25 of them facing charges for violating the lese majeste laws. There are 27 activists who are being held in pre-trial detention, according to figures on THLR's website.

Chonthicha "Lookkate" Jangrew, a prominent activist and member of Thailand's opposition Move Forward Party, is worried about how Bung's death may affect other activists in detention.

"One of my concerns is that this tragedy might have effects on the mental health of activists," she told DW.

"Still, there are at least 43 political prisoners and some of them have health issues, which we also have to monitor closely whether or not they are able to access good medical treatment," Chonticha added.

"What happened to [Bung] is not self-harm on purpose, she went on hunger strikes to protest against injustice and to demand for her right to bail. Also, one of the most important things is to reform the prisons. The medical treatment in prisons should be questioned after Bung's death."

An activist shows a message opposing the law under section 112 of Thailand's penal code
Thailand's lese majeste law, also referred to as Article 112 of Thailand's Criminal Code, carries lengthy prison sentences for those who criticize the monarchyImage: Teera Noisakran/Pacific Press/picture alliance

Lookkate hopes that Thailand will pass legislation that would bring amnesty to those charged with crimes during political demonstrations dating back to 2006.

The Amnesty for People's Bill has been backed by a coalition of civil society groups, activists and the Move Forward Party.

"We are trying to push the amnesty bill in parliament for all people who have been prosecuted and who are currently in prison, and we are working on an amendment to the law that will reform the right for bail for all."

The activist-turned-politician faces her own outstanding lese majeste charges, but they are not preventing her from her political duties.

"My charges do not stop me from continuing my mission to bring justice for all people."

DW contacted Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment, however there was no reply at the time of publication.

Edited by: Keith Walker

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Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco