Thai youth activist charged with royal defamation dies in custody

Thai activist Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom

Thai activist Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom. Photo by Ginger Cat. Source: Prachatai, content partner of Global Voices.

Thai activist Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom died on May 14 while under pre-trial detention for charges related to royal defamation. Her death sparked outcry from human rights advocates, who urged the government to reform the lèse-majesté (royal insult) law and to stop persecuting state critics.

Bung, 28, was an English tutor before she became involved with the youth-led democracy movement in 2020 that campaigned for the restoration of civilian rule. She later joined Thaluwang, a group known for staging protests calling for the reformation of the monarchy. The pro-democracy movement gained popular support and was credited with the victory of opposition forces that challenged military-backed parties in the 2023 elections.

Bung was arrested after conducting a survey in a shopping mall on the impact of royal motorcades on ordinary motorists. She was detained in May 2022 and released on bail three months later after, engaging in a hunger strike. She was rearrested in January 2024 for allegedly breaking her bail conditions by participating in a political protest.

Bung started her hunger strike on January 27; it lasted for 65 days. She had two demands: reform of the lèse-majesté law and the release of political prisoners. She was in detention for 110 days before suffering cardiac arrest.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, senior staff writer of news website Khaosod English, noted the absurdity of the charges filed against Bung.

How on earth, in a self-proclaimed democratic society, could Bung be charged with royal defamation crime and sedition for something so harmless as publicly asking people to attach a sticker on a paper board to answer whether royal motorcades caused inconveniences to ordinary people or not?

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand pointed out the arbitrary ways in which authorities interpret the royal defamation law.

The sweeping interpretations Thai courts typically make of what constitutes royal defamation, and the formidable obstacles to mounting a defence of those charged under the law, make it a matter of serious concern for journalists trying to report on Thailand. That a young woman has now lost her life because of this should be a matter of concern to everybody.

Around 45 student organizations and activist groups issued a joint statement accusing the Thai government of treating Bung “as a criminal even if she has not been found guilty.” The statement added that Bung “was detained and had her bail denied without a reasonable cause, violating the fundamental right to bail.” Related to this, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights urged the government to “respect, protect, and fulfill the right to bail of political detainees who have not been found guilty of any offenses by a final judgment.”

Aside from local human rights groups, diplomats and international civil society groups and networks released statements expressing concern about the untimely passing of Bung and the persecution she faced as a dissident. Vigils were held in the capital Bangkok and other cities such as Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phrae, Lampang, Nakhon Ratchasima, and Khon Kaen. Lawyer Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen attended one of the vigils and spoke about Bung’s legacy.

We come to stand here because she was a child of the people … who have rights and freedoms, and there should be no one who is lost because they exercise their rights and freedoms, and to insist that everyone who has not been found guilty must have the right to temporary release.

Amnesty International Thailand Director Piyanut Kotsan highlighted the accountability of the government and the continuing dire human rights situation in the country.

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.

Emilie Palamy Pradichit of Thailand-based Manushya Foundation echoed the sentiment of youth activists.

How many young Thais need to take to the streets, risk their mental health, risk their physical health, or risk having their human rights brutally denied by the State, for the rest of Thai society to take action?

A cartoonist paid tribute to Bung and illustrated the role of the government headed by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin in enabling the continuing weaponization of the Lese Majeste law (Section 112 of the criminal code) against dissenters.

The prime minister told the media that he has already directed the Justice Ministry to investigate the circumstances that caused the death of Bung.

Bung was cremated today (May 19) as activists and supporters continue to press for justice.

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