A hunger strike by two young activists has returned the issue of Thailand’s royal defamation law to the center of political debate as a general election draws near and pro-democracy parties try to avoid making the controversial law a campaign issue.
Thailand is ruled by a constitutional monarchy, but King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 70, wields sweeping political and economic influence.
Critics say those powers are beyond debate due to the royal defamation law - article 112 of the Thai criminal code — which carries a jail sentence of between three and 15 years for anyone deemed guilty of defaming, insulting or threatening key royals.
Scores of people, including teenagers, have been charged under the law since mass youth-driven protests erupted in 2020. Those rallies saw unprecedented public calls for monarchy reform and the repeal of article 112.
A 26-year-old was jailed for two years this week for selling a calendar depicting rubber ducks deemed by a criminal court to have insulted the Thai monarchy.
Two activists charged under 112, Tantawan Tuatulanont, 21, and Orawan Phupong, 23, have been on hunger strikes since January 18, demanding the courts release all political prisoners.
On February 24 they discharged themselves from a hospital to continue their strike in front of the Supreme Court in Bangkok.
“People will walk by this entrance… they can choose to look away but we’ll be right here,” the pair said in a statement on Facebook, through their lawyers.
Better known by their nicknames Tawan and Bam, they were charged for holding a poll in February 2022 on the impact of royal motorcades, which frequently disrupt Bangkok traffic.
They are currently refusing food, and drinking only small amounts of water, according to their lawyers, as their health visibly wanes on day 50 of their strike.
“We knew there may only be two outcomes,” the women added in their statement.
Thailand’s monarchy is backed by the arch-royalist army, which has broken up efforts to build a full democracy with 13 successful coups since 1932.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the last coup in 2014 as army chief and then rebranded as a civilian leader, has indicated a general election will be held by May 7.
He is seeking to return as premier, with his clearest route back to power likely to be as head of a coalition of pro-army establishment parties.
But as elections creep closer the royal defamation law is coming under new scrutiny.
Bam and Tawan’s case has drawn the attention of celebrities, politicians and rights groups as well as from Clement Voule, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly, who tweeted (Feb. 10) that he was “very concerned” about “the critical health conditions” of the pair.
Their action has also pointed to a split on the pro-democracy side on the level of reform they are willing to demand.
Thailand’s biggest party — Pheu Thai — is hoping to win a landslide in the upcoming polls, banking on the loyalty of the poor north and northeast to the family of billionaire former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose own government was thrown out in a 2006 coup.
But the party has side-stepped calls for reform of the 112 law.
“If Pheu Thai is in government I am confident we will not see this law being used every day,” Thaksin said in a Facebook post late last month from overseas, where he lives to avoid jail in Thailand on corruption charges he insists are bogus.
“It’s easier to use international standards of the rule of law to solve this problem than to actually amend the law itself,” he said.
Pheu Thai is putting up Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, as a possible prime ministerial candidate, using the family name to get out the vote.
Experts say the party’s position on the law is muted to avoid antagonizing Thailand’s highly interventionist courts — and the arch-royalist factions, who loathe Thaksin.
Court orders have struck down several Shinawatra-linked parties and governments in the past, before and just after elections.
Instead, the onus on reforming the law has fallen on Move Forward, a progressive, youth-focused party.
As a first step the party wants the punishment under the law to be reduced to a one-year maximum sentence, but party leaders say the house speaker has so far blocked the proposal from being debated in parliament.
“As long as we still have this law, there is no way Thailand can be a democratic country,” said Amornrat Chokepamitkul, a Move Forward member of parliament.
“How can we call ourselves democratic when we have a law that bans people from speaking or expressing themselves freely?”
Yet any changes to a law protecting Thailand’s most powerful institution, are a major gamble in a volatile country.
“I expect most parties to be reluctant to campaign heavily on the issue of Article 112, since the downside risks may outweigh potential gains,” said Napon Jatusripitak, a political scientist and researcher at The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Yusof-Ishak Institute in Singapore.
For Pheu Thai, “the safest move is to voice support for human rights while relieving itself of any real responsibility in terms of amending or abolishing the law,” he said.
Bam and Tawan’s hunger strike could change the calculation, especially if their health takes a turn for the worse in front of a watching public.
For many “Generation Z” voters, the 112 law is a dividing line from their elders, who rarely brought the monarchy into discussions on Thailand’s trenchant political and economic troubles.
“Forget about amending it, 112 must be repealed,” said Thayut Na Ayudhya, 21, a Thai rapper called Eleven Finger and a friend of the hunger striking pair.
“It should never be used against anyone ever again. I’m worried for Bam and Tawan. This law has to go so their sacrifice is not in vain.”