Thai women activists end hunger strike, vow to keep up fight

BANGKOK (AP) — Two Thai women activists gave up their hunger strike of more than seven weeks, announcing Saturday they have decided it is better to live so they can continue their unfinished fight for political and judicial reforms.

Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon, 21, and Orawan “Bam” Phuphong, 23, had been on hunger strike since Jan. 18, much of that time refusing water as well. Refusing all liquids in addition to food can cause permanent injury and even death if carried on for an extended period, and doctors several times had announced they were seriously at risk.

“Tawan and Bam would like to announce to the public that they have ended their hunger strike and will accept treatment to use their lives in continuing their fight as there has been no response from the court," said a statement released on their behalf on social media.

It said the two are now in a hospital under close medical supervision because of concern for damage the hunger strike might have caused to their kidneys and other organs. It added that they are responding well and fully conscious.

The activists are among at least 233 people who have been charged since November 2020 with violating the lese majeste law, which carries a prison term of three to 15 years for insulting or defaming top members of the monarchy. Critics say the law, also known as Article 112, is often wielded as a tool to quash political dissent.

Student-led pro-democracy protests beginning in 2020 openly criticized the monarchy, previously a taboo subject, leading to vigorous prosecutions under the law, which had previously been relatively rarely employed. The protest movement faded due to government harassment and the coronavirus pandemic.

In January, a court sentenced a 27-year-old activist to 28 years in prison for posting messages on Facebook that it said defamed the monarchy. Last week, another man was sentenced to two years in prison for selling calendars featuring satirical cartoons of yellow ducks that a court said mocked Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Tantawan and Orawan were charged with lese majeste for conducting public polls on whether people felt bothered by royal motorcades, which can lead to road closures and heavy traffic. They also face other charges such as sedition and refusing to comply with the authorities.

The two had been free on bail when they announced in mid-January that they were revoking their own release to return to prison in solidarity with others held pending trial on the same charge. They issued demands including reform of the justice system, the release of political prisoners and the restoration of civil liberties by abolishing legislation such as the lese majeste law.

Tantawan and Orawan were granted temporary release last month when their health deteriorated but they refused to formally recognize it and continued their hunger strike camped out in front of Thailand’s Supreme Court.

At the same time, the courts continued to turn down appeals for freedom on bail of their imprisoned comrades.

Opposition political parties had offered support for some of the hunger strikers’ demands, but they and other sympathizers at the same time implored the women to save themselves.

Several expressed approval on social media Saturday of the decision to end their strike.

“The announcement to end the hunger strike by #TawanBam is not a defeat. The dictatorship is not worth the lives of young people,” Jiraporn Sindhuprai, a lawmaker from the Pheu Thai Party, said in a Twitter post. “The word hero for this country does not always come with justice. I ask my two young sisters to look after their lives and remain an important part of the people’s fight.”