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A monarchy reform activist in Thailand dies in detention after a hunger strike

Thai activists hold a portrait of Netiporn Sanesangkhom, a member of the activist group Thaluwang outside of Criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, on Tuesday.
Sakchai Lalit
Thai activists hold a portrait of Netiporn Sanesangkhom, a member of the activist group Thaluwang outside of Criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, on Tuesday.

BANGKOK — A young activist in Thailand who went on a hunger strike after being jailed for advocating reform of the country's monarchy system died Tuesday in a prison hospital, officials said. The death sparked fresh calls for reviewing the judicial process that allows political offenders accused of nonviolent offenses to be held for extended periods in prison ahead of being tried.

Netiporn "Bung" Sanesangkhom, 28, was a member of the activist group Thaluwang, known for their bold and aggressive campaigns demanding reform of the monarchy and abolition of the law that makes it illegal to defame members of the royal family. The group's name can be loosely translated as "breaking through the palace," a reference to its open criticism of Thailand's monarchy.

She appears to be the first political activist in Thailand to have died after carrying on a partial hunger strike for 110 days while she was awaiting trial.

The Thailand branch of the human rights group Amnesty International 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."

"This is a grim day for Thai society, highlighting the severe judicial harassment and the justice system's failure to recognize basic human rights," the group said. "Speaking out should not lead to death; it should inspire change."

The popular opposition Move Forward party, which has also campaigned for reform of the monarchy, issued a statement saying that people should not be jailed for holding political opinions and that persons accused of political offenses should be granted bail.

Foreign diplomats and ambassadors from the U.S., U.K., Canada, the EU and elsewhere offered their condolences after Netiporn's death. German Ambassador Ernest Reichel wrote on social platform X: "My wish would be that political disagreements are not taken to such bitter and extreme consequences."

Thailand's monarchy until recent years was widely considered an untouchable, bedrock element of Thai nationalism. Criticism of the monarchy was taboo, and insulting or defaming key royal family members remains punishable by up to 15 years in prison under a lese majeste law, usually referred to as Article 112 of Thailand's Criminal Code.

Student-led pro-democracy protests beginning in 2020 openly criticized the monarchy, leading to vigorous prosecutions under the law, which had previously been relatively rarely employed. Critics say the law is often wielded as a tool to quash political dissent.

The protest movement faded due to government harassment and the coronavirus pandemic, but Netiporn was one of more than 270 activists charged with the royal defamation law since the protests in 2020-21.

Netiporn suffered cardiac arrest early Tuesday morning, and medical teams spent several hours trying to resuscitate her. She was pronounced dead just before noon, according to a statement from the Corrections Department.

She 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 the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Her release on bail was revoked in January due to her participation in a political rally last year.

Netiporn started her hunger strike after she was detained in January. The Corrections Department said she began eating and drinking water again after April 4. However, the human rights lawyer group's latest update on her condition on April 25 said she was still fasting.

Two fellow jailed activists are also carrying out hunger strikes. Both are Thaluwang members who were also charged with lese majeste for agitating for reform of the monarchy, and they started their hunger strikes about a month after Netiporn.

Netiporn's lawyers had applied for her to be transferred from the Central Corrections Hospital to Thammasat University Hospital but she was never granted a prolonged stay there for treatment, said her lawyer, Kritsadang Nutcharas. The authorities said they would establish the legal cause of death.

"Does it seem like there's standard treatment in the Thai justice system when we compare what these kids are going through with their political charges and what some prominent adults have gone through?" Kritsadang said. He was making an apparent reference to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who returned from exile last year to serve a prison term in corruption-related cases but never spent a single night in jail on grounds of ill health.

At a candlelight vigil Tuesday night outside Bangkok's Criminal Court, another activist facing lese majeste charges, Panusaya "Rung" Sitthijirawattanakul, decried the failure of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin's government to ease the plight of political prisoners.

"Do you need someone to die first before you think of doing something?" she said. "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."

Thaluwang has held high-profile protests calling not only for reform of the monarchy, but also changes in the justice system and an end to political persecution through the courts. It has also called for rejection of Thailand's application to join the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Thailand announced its bid for a seat on the rights council for the 2025-2027 term after the current government took office last year, seeking to show its commitment to protect human rights. Critics charge that the reality of law enforcement in the country strongly contradicts its ambition to be recognized by the international community as a human rights defender.

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.

Copyright 2024 NPR

The Associated Press