Tantawan Tuatulanon and Orawan Phupong have been in and out of court and hospital since beginning their hunger strike on January 18 to urge political parties to support the abolition of the kingdom’s tough lese majeste laws.
But with mainstream politicians focused on the upcoming polls and many activists fearful of being charged with lese majeste themselves if they voice support, even after seven weeks of hunger the pair’s protest is not making waves.
“There were many people at the beginning, but as the protest continues fewer people come,” said Krisadang Nootjaras, from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a legal aid group that handles many royal insult cases.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha, a conservative former army chief who took power in a 2014 coup, has pleaded with the women’s families to “monitor” their behaviour.
Opposition parties have stopped short of backing Tantawan and Orawan’s calls for reform, reluctant to get entangled in the highly sensitive question of the monarchy so close to an election.
And there has been little action on Bangkok’s streets, which were brought to a standstill by mass youth-led protests in 2020 and 2021 that included demands for changes to the royal insult law.
Tantawan, 21, and Orawan, 23, were freed from custody last month as their condition worsened, and they are now conscious in the hospital and receiving electrolytes, Krisadang said.
They were charged in 2022 with lese majeste over two separate protests in Bangkok.
Since the protest movement erupted in July 2020, TLHR says more than 200 people have been charged under article 112 of the penal code, which orders up to 15 years in jail for anyone who “defames, insults or threatens” the king or his immediate family.
Rights groups say the law is abused to silence political dissent, and the sentences handed out can be severe — one woman got 43 years in prison in 2021.
At least 17 minors are facing prosecution, and on Tuesday a man was jailed for two years for selling a satirical calendar featuring yellow rubber ducks that a court ruled was insulting to the king.
“Under this repressive environment people are fearing to come out, and speak out, and demand democracy and any other causes that they want,” Amnesty International researcher Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong told AFP.
“I think that partly contributes to the overall silence that we are seeing right now.”
Chanatip said the election, expected sometime in May, added to peoples’ fear of a tougher government crackdown.
“Many people may have this assessment and decide to refrain from speaking out further,” he said.
Napisa Waitoolkiat, a political analyst at Naresuan University, said media attention on the election meant there was little room for other reporting.
In addition to that, she continued, the increasing use of the lese majeste law was “creating fear”.
“It doesn’t mean that the pro-democracy movement has disappeared, or that Thai people do not pay attention. But it is less now,” she said.
With journalists outnumbering supporters outside Orawan and Tantawan’s hospital, their strike goes on — and their condition worsens.
Lawyer Krisadang said the women were determined to fight for their cause, even if public interest was low.
“These kids still stick with their ideology. If they prove they are right, (the public) will support them,” he said.