Two of the leaders of the Thai democracy protests that raised explosive criticisms of the ruling monarchy last year are on a hunger strike and in worsening health, according to their lawyers and relatives.
Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul have been refusing food in prison in Bangkok in recent weeks to protest against Thai judicial authorities’ decision to deny them bail as they await trial for lèse majesté and other charges.
The two are students at Thammasat University and belonged to a radical protester faction that has called for the powers and wealth of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Thailand’s billionaire head of state, to be limited.
The protests were unlike any the kingdom had seen in recent years in the audacity of the demands. But that boldness breached Thailand’s harsh laws shielding the king and his family from criticism, including lèse majesté, which carries a maximum 15-year sentence. The pair have been in prison since February.
Parit announced his hunger strike on March 15 and has been refusing anything but liquids, according to Krisadang Nutcharut, one of his lawyers. “We tried to ask the court to allow him bail because we think his condition is dangerous to the point of losing his life,” Krisadang told the Financial Times.
Parit was “clearly extremely thinner”, prone to tiring easily and could not stand without support, he said. The activist is receiving a saline drip.
“I am concerned about his health right now,” said Paopoom Chiwarak, the imprisoned activist’s cousin. “Parit is not a very healthy person in the first place.”
Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul began her hunger strike on April 5 © Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images
Panusaya, who began her hunger strike on April 5, was looking tired but “not as bad as the case of Penguin” said Krisadang, who is also advising her.
The students were arrested as part of a decisive crackdown on protest leaders last year. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which is also advising the activists, there are at least 17 people in detention related to protests or political participation.
“Penguin has gotten weaker, and there is greater concern about prison conditions now that Covid-19 has spread inside the Bangkok Remand Prison where he and others are detained,” June Sirikan, an attorney with the group, told the FT.
Thailand’s Department of Corrections said that the health of Parit and Panusaya was being monitored “every day, many times a day”, including their body temperatures, hydration levels and blood pressure.
It said the two students were also being closely monitored on closed circuit security cameras 24 hours a day in case they needed help, and preparations had been made to take them to hospital in an emergency.
The department had no comment on their requests for bail, which it said lay outside its area of responsibility.
In addition to lèse majesté, the two activists have been charged with sedition and other alleged crimes relating to a protest in September at Sanam Luang, the “royal ground” in front of Bangkok’s Grand Palace. The demonstration was the largest in 2020 and protesters planted a plaque stating that Thailand belonged “to the people, not the king, as they deceived us”.
The protest movement has subsided this year after a wave of arrests and a more forceful response by police, who have used water cannon, tear gas and blockades to thwart demonstrations. After refraining from using lèse majesté in recent years, Thai authorities have brought multiple charges under the law and wrapped up some outstanding cases.
Anchan Preelert, a former civil servant, was convicted in February of multiple charges of violating the law and given a record sentence of more than 43 years in jail.
Sirikan said that Parit “wanted the world to pay some attention to the situation in Thailand — not just his case, but what is happening at the moment”.
She added: “He said the world should witness his suffering and his torment, that have been the doing of the government and the powers that be.”
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