Concern rises for lives of 2 Thai activists on hunger strike

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Political activists Orawan Phuphong, left, and Tatawan Tuatulanon raise a three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance, in protest outside at Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. Concerns about the condition of two hunger strikers seeking political and judicial reforms heightened Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, after the hospital where the two women are being kept urgently summoned their parents. (Ratsadon News via AP)

BANGKOK – Concerns about the condition of two hunger strikers seeking political and judicial reforms in Thailand heightened Monday after the hospital where the two women are being kept urgently summoned their parents.

Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon, 21, and Orawan “Bam” Phuphong, 23, have been on hunger strike since Jan. 18 — much of that time refusing water as well as food — to back their demands for reform of the justice system, the release of political prisoners pending trial and for lawmakers to amend or abolish laws used against political dissidents.

Their lawyer, Krisadang Nutcharas, said they are in poor condition, and at risk of losing their lives.

"Their parents didn’t sleep last night and they have been here since morning,” said Krisadang at the Thammasat University Hospital in a northern suburb of Bangkok, the capital. “This is not a scripted drama to ask people for their sympathy.”

The two women agreed a few days ago to resume taking water. Refusing all liquids in addition to food can cause permanent injury and even death if carried on for an extended period.

The two activists are among at least 228 people, including 18 minors, have been charged with violating the lese majeste law, which carries a prison term of three to 15 years for insulting 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.

Sitthichok Sethasavet, a food delivery driver convicted in January of lese majeste, is also on a hunger strike and being kept at the same hospital.

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 authorities.

The two women had been free on bail but announced earlier this month that they were revoking their own release to return to prison in solidarity with others held pending trial on the same charge whom they want to be freed, saying that's the main issue at this point.

Krisadang said Monday he reapplied for the release on bail of eight others from the same activist group who have been detained pending trial after they were accused of breaking the law while taking part in political protests. Several previous applications have been turned down.

A Sunday statement by Thammasat University Hospital said the condition of both young women is deteriorating as they continue to reject food and treatment and are only sipping water.

Tantawan is bleeding through her gums in addition to suffering from fatigue, low blood sugar, stomach pains and trouble sleeping, while her body is lacking in electrolytes and her blood is also becoming acidic, the statement said.

It said Orawan is experiencing similar ailments in addition to a blood clotting disorder, tired legs and nausea.

Opposition political parties have joined the hunger strikers' call for releasing the prisoners, but sympathizers have also been imploring the women to save themselves.

“I truly believe that no one should have to sacrifice their lives to ask for basic democratic rights in a modern democratic society, which includes the right to equal treatment in the justice system and the right to bail," popular opposition figure Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit said in a video message posted Sunday on a “Return lives, return the right to bail” Facebook page.