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Opinion

Thailand must free student hunger strikers now

Protest leaders facing lese-majeste charges singled out by judiciary

| Thailand
Arrested anti-government protester Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak flashes a three-finger salute upon arrival at the criminal court to face lese-majeste charges in Bangkok on Mar. 15.   © Reuters

Tyrell Haberkorn is professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Thongchai Winichakul is emeritus professor in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Two students, Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak and Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul, have gone on hunger strike while being detained ahead of their trials in late May for alleged lese-majeste. The pair are refusing nourishment to protest the denial of their right to bail.

Numerous bail requests have been made on their behalf by their faculties at Thammasat University, where Parit is a fourth-year political science student and Panusaya is a third-year sociology and anthropology student. The judges say they have not been persuaded the defiant duo will not go out and reoffend.

Parit embarked on his hunger strike on Mar. 15 and Panusaya joined him 15 days later. The risk to their health grows with each passing day. As long as the authorities ignore their peaceful protest and deny their right to bail, there will also be risks to the health of Thailand's polity, which has been in turmoil since youth-led protests for greater democracy began in July 2020.

In the second half of 2020, the protests brought diverse constituencies out on the streets with three main demands. First, that General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet resign. Second, that the constitution be redrafted with public consultation. Third, that the monarchy be reformed under the constitution.

Prayuth seized power with a coup on May 22, 2014, when he established his junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). He then made himself prime minister, and remained in that position following a general election in 2019 that critics said was neither free nor fair. The NCPO oversaw the drafting of a constitution that is Thailand's 20th since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Although it was adopted in a national referendum in 2016, many citizens felt it denied them their rights and the opportunity to participate in national governance.

Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul arrives at the criminal court on Mar. 15.   © Reuters

The call for reform of the monarchy under the constitution is the reason Parit and Panusaya are among a lengthening roster of activists facing criminal prosecution. They have been charged with violating Article 112 of the criminal code, which criminalizes insult, defamation and threat to the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent. Those found guilty face three to fifteen years in prison per count, with multiple terms to be served consecutively.

But these activists have not actually insulted, defamed, or threatened the monarchy. Instead, they have dared to call for an open and frank discussion on the place of the monarchy in Thailand -- particularly with respect to its relationship with the law, the judiciary, the military and its assets.

Parit faces at least 20 counts of violating Article 112, and Panusaya at least nine. Their sentences for speeches at peaceful protests and social media posts could break records -- evidence how afraid the state and the palace are of such discussions.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 82 people have been charged under Article 112. They are among 581 people charged with sedition, unlawful assembly and other alleged offenses during mostly peaceful protests between July 2020 and March 2021.

The first of these cases to be heard in court will be those of Parit and Panusaya relating to protests staged on Sept. 19 and 20. Another 20 people have also been charged for alleged offenses on those days, including seven under Article 112. The 13 who have not been charged with lese-majeste have all been granted bail.

The protests in Thailand have called for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet.   © Reuters

The right to bail is guaranteed under Thai law and by Thailand's international human rights obligations, but it is routinely denied in Article 112 cases on the grounds of national security and the fact that the harsh penalty makes flight more likely. Denying bail to key leaders has effectively shut down the protest movement, and instilled fear in those who dare to dissent.

When Parit announced the start of his hunger strike in court on Mar. 15, he asked: "Why do the courts of justice, which are a place of truth that must establish the truth, then imprison the truth? Why do you not grant bail to the truth to prove itself? Or is it that you detest and fear the truth so much that you must lock it away to suffer, with the hope that this will crush and ruin the truth until it disintegrates on its own?"

The judges responded that Parit was in contempt of court by making this statement and for refusing to shut up when ordered.

A week later, activists took to gathering outside the Supreme Court every evening in silence to call for the release of those detained without bail. Every Saturday afternoon, the mothers of the imprisoned, led by Parit's mother, Sureerat, protested outside the detention facility. They had T-shirts and large posters with their children's faces upon them, and pledged to carry on. The numbers outside and inside will grow as the number of pending cases steadily mounts.

"But the truth is the truth, whether it is in a cage, subject to a machine of torture, or on the scaffold," Parit lectured the judges. "The truth remains the truth. No matter how long you lock me up and no matter how much pain you inflict on me, suffering will not be able to destroy the truth."

As each application for bail is denied, it becomes more evident that preventing citizens from openly discussing the monarchy and its role in the Thai polity are to the authorities more important than the lives of citizens. Parit, Panusaya and all the other political detainees must have their bail rights restored.

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