Hunger striking royal reform activist dies in custody in Thailand

Netiporn Sanesangkhom had been in jail since her arrest in January under Thailand’s strict royal defamation laws.

Netiporn Sanesangkhom, known as Bung, was a leading member of the underground anti-monarchy group, Thaluwang [Courtesy of ‘eggcatcheese]By Caleb QuinleyPublished On 15 May 202415 May 2024

Bangkok, Thailand – Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom was known by her friends and family as courageous, outspoken, and fierce. At just 28 years old, she was a formidable force within the Thai democracy movement, defiant in the face of the legal and physical risks as she and her friends called for royal reform.

Dressed in her signature all-black at street demonstrations, Netiporn was not afraid of the authorities: often challenging their almost constant surveillance, and staring down the police at protests and other public events. Always willing to speak her mind, she had a strong voice that carried far, electrifying the crowds at rallies.

Keep reading

list of 4 itemsend of list

“Let there be reform of the justice process,” Netiporn said at an event last year. “No one should be jailed for having political differences.”

But on April 14, Netiporn died from cardiac arrest while in custody awaiting trial. She had been imprisoned since January 26 and charged with royal defamation, also known as lese-majeste, for conducting public opinion polls about Thai royal motorcades, among a slew of other charges.

Even from detention, she continued to protest. She had been on a hunger strike for more than 110 days in protest against the bail conditions faced by democracy protesters.

“What did Bung do? Nothing. She just wanted democracy and to reform the justice system,” Emilie Palamy Pradichit, the founder and executive director of Manushya Foundation, a Thailand-based rights group, told Al Jazeera.

Friends and supporters mourn Netiporn outside Bangkok’s criminal court [Narfong Sangnak/EPA]

Emilie and Nitiporn were friends and they often worked together.

“A young person is dead because she wanted democracy and justice,” Emilie said. “She died because she stood for people, for an end to dictatorship and absolute monarchy, for a better Thailand. I hope this will be a wake-up call for the dinosaur generation, the establishment, and the state.”

‘Broken judicial system’

Netiporn was a leading member of the underground antimonarchical group Thaluwang, a name that translates to “shattering the palace” and which is made up of mostly young people in their 20s, who use performance art, provocative stunts and other tactics to question the king’s immense power.

One of many critics of the monarchy who have come under legal pressure in Thailand since protests broke out in 2020, Netiporn had been calling on the government to release activists held in pre-trial detention for more than a year.

“Netiporn’s tragic death in custody shows how brutal the punishment for royal defamation is in Thailand,” Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.

“The [28-year-old] activist sacrificed her life by going on hunger strike to demand the right to bail for political prisoners and that no one should be punished for expressing dissenting views, including making criticism of the monarchy.”

Netiporn was known for being fearless [Courtesy of eggcatcheese]

Sunai noted that there has been no improvement in fundamental freedoms and human rights for those who challenge the monarchy in modern Thailand, noting that nine months after Prime Minister Srettha Thavasin took office, “Thailand remains as repressive as it was under military rule.”

At least 270 Thai activists have been charged with royal defamation since 2020. Rights groups say critics of the palace risk months in pre-trial detention for months without bail, and decades in prison if they are convicted on royal defamation charges.

More than 2,000 people have also been prosecuted for a range of other charges since 2020, including sedition and “cybercrimes” for their involvement in antigovernment protests, according to the legal group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR).

“The death of Ms. Netiporn is evidence that the problems of political prosecution and detention of pro-democracy activists, especially in lèse-majesté cases, is still very much alive under the Pheu Thai government,” Akarachai Chaimaneekarakate, advocacy lead at TLHR, said in a statement.

“Her death also highlights the importance of the people’s amnesty bill, which is currently before the parliament. The right to bail must be granted to political detainees who have not been found guilty of any crimes by a final judgment.”

Akarachai pointed out that Netiporn died while Thailand was running for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, an irony not lost on Thailand observers.

Alongside pro-democracy protesters and other activists, Thai opposition party members have been calling on the government to fix a “broken judicial system”, one that allows activists like Netiporn to suffer in pre-trial detention for months on end.

Netiporn began a hunger strike after being arrested and held in custody for calling for royal reform [Sakchai Lalit/AP Photo]

“What happened to Mrs Boong is a reminder that our justice system needs to change,” Rangsiman Rome, a member of Thailand’s House of Representatives and the deputy secretary-general of the opposition Move Forward Party, told Al Jazeera. “No one should ever have to go through this situation.”

Rangsiman, who is a former democracy protest leader himself, added that the presumption of innocence was explicitly written in Thailand’s constitution and that those awaiting trial must be treated under the law. He said the Move Forward Party was waiting for Netiporn’s autopsy results and hoped there would be a thorough investigation into her death.

“The faith that the people of Thailand have in our justice system is at an all-time low,” Rangsiman said. “Our government should have a serious discussion with the judiciary body and make necessary changes to resolve this crisis.”

Source: Al Jazeera