Young Thai activist’s death in detention after 65-day hunger strike sparks calls for justice reform

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A young activist jailed for insulting Thailand’s monarchy died on Tuesday following a prolonged hunger strike, officials said, prompting an outpouring of grief and renewed calls for justice reform in the Southeast Asian kingdom

Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom, 28, died after suffering a “sudden cardiac arrest,” Thailand’s Corrections Department said in a statement. A medical team tried to resuscitate her before transferring her to Bangkok’s Thammasat University Hospital but she “did not respond to treatment,” the department said.

An autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death, the department added.

Netiporn was a member of protest group Thalu Wang, which has pushed for reform of Thailand’s powerful monarchy and amendment of the country’s draconian lese majeste law, in which criticizing the king, queen, or heir apparent can lead to a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

The group’s name loosely translates to “piercing through the palace,” in reference to its drive to hold the monarchy accountable; it campaigns by holding public opinion polls questioning the monarchy’s power.

Netiporn had been part of the nationwide 2020 youth-led protests that saw millions of young Thais take to the streets of major cities calling for constitutional, democratic and military reforms, and, for the first time, openly criticizing the monarchy and publicly questioning its power and wealth.

She had been in jail since January 26 and was awaiting trial, according to legal advocacy group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

While in detention, Netiporn went on a 65-day hunger strike until April to protest the jailing of political dissidents without bail, the group said. During this time, she had been moved back and forth to the prison hospital due to her deteriorating health.

After Netiporn was sent back to jail on April 4, the Thai Corrections Department said she was able to eat and drink normally, but she was weak and suffered from swollen limbs and anemia. She had refused to take “minerals and anti-anemia supplements,” the department said.

The activist faced seven criminal cases, including two lese majeste charges. She previously spent 94 days in jail in 2022 and conducted a hunger strike before being released on bail, which was later revoked.

One lese majeste case against her was filed in relation to a 2022 protest where she held up a banner at a busy shopping mall in Bangkok that read: “Did the royal procession cause an inconvenience?”

The other lese majeste charge is from a similar 2022 protest where she held a sign asking the public: “Do you agree that the government allows the king to use power as he pleases?”

In an open letter Netiporn wrote from jail in March, she said growing up as a judge’s daughter made her realize “this country doesn’t exist to serve small people’s justice.”

“You don’t have to be a judge’s daughter to understand the scale of the failure in the justice system. Their existence is not for the people, they exist shamelessly for the powers and a few groups of people in this country,” she wrote. “By simply asking question and honking a car, you go to jail.”

Calls for reform

Netiporn’s death has shocked many in the country and sparked renewed calls for reforms to the judicial system, which allows activists to be denied bail and held in detention for extended periods of time before trial.

“This is a shocking reminder that Thai authorities are harshly denying pro-democracy activists their freedom in an apparent bid to silence the peaceful expression of dissent. Many are currently detained, with their right to temporary release on bail denied,” said Amnesty International in a statement.

“This tragic incident should serve as a wake-up call to Thai authorities to drop charges against and release all human rights defenders and other people who are unjustly detained.”

On Tuesday night, supporters held a candlelight vigil outside the Southern Bangkok Criminal Court. Those attending included Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, a fellow activist who also faces lese majeste charges for her involvement in the 2020 protests.

Calling on the government of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin to respond to her death, Panusaya demanded the release of all political prisoners in Thailand.

“Do we have to have more people die before you will care?” she asked.

On Wednesday, Srettha called Netiporn’s death a “tragic incident,” adding he had ordered Thailand’s Ministry of Justice to investigate the circumstances surrounding it.

“I would like to convey my condolences to her family. I am confident that we will give justice,” he said.

Responding to the calls for the release of all political prisoners, Strettha said, “I believe that the justice minister has heard about the call, and he’s working on looking into the whole legal system. We have to give justice to everyone.”

Thailand has some of the world’s strictest lese majeste laws and sentences for those convicted under Section 112 of the country’s criminal code, can be decades long. Hundreds of people have been prosecuted in recent years, including Mongkol Thirakhot, who was sentenced to a record 50 years in prison in January for social media posts deemed damaging to the king.

For years, human rights organizations and free speech campaigners have said lese majeste has been used as a political tool to silence critics of the Thai government.

Rights groups say the right to freedom of expression in Thailand has come under increased attack since the 2020 protests. Despite the change from a military-backed government to civilian leadership last year, surveillance and intimidation against activists and students continues, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

The legal advocacy group said that since the start of those protests in July 2020 and up until March 2024, at least 1,954 people have been prosecuted or charged for their participation in political assemblies and for speaking out, with 286 of those cases involving children.

At least 270 people have been charged with lese majeste during that time, the group added.

Netiporn’s death comes as Thailand is running for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council and while the Thai government is negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union, Akarachai added.

“The right to bail must be granted to political detainees who have not been found guilty of any crimes by a final judgment,” he said. “The price of fundamental freedoms should not be their lives.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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