Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom: Thai activist’s death in custody sparks calls for justice reform


A young activist imprisoned for insulting Thailand’s monarchy died on Tuesday after a long hunger strike, officials said, sparking an outpouring of grief and renewed calls for justice reform in the Southeast Asian kingdom.

The Thai Prison Service said in a statement that Nitiporn “Pong” Sanisangkhum, 28, died after suffering a sudden cardiac arrest. The administration said that a medical team tried to revive her before transporting her to Thammasat University Hospital in Bangkok, but she “did not respond to treatment.”

The ministry added that an autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death.

Nitiporn was a member of the Thalo Wang protest group, which pushed for reform of Thailand’s powerful monarchy and overhaul of the country’s system of government. Strict lese majeste lawCriticism of the King, Queen or Crown Prince can result in a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

The group’s name loosely translates to “hack the palace”, referring to its quest to hold the monarchy accountable; It campaigns by conducting public opinion polls that question the authority of the monarchy.

Netiporn was part of the nationwide youth-led protests in 2020 that saw millions of young Thais take to the streets of major cities to demand constitutional, democratic and military reforms and, for the first time, publicly criticize the monarchy and publicly question its authority. And wealth.

She has been in prison since January 26 and awaiting trial, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Group.

While in detention, Nitiporn began a 65-day hunger strike until April to protest the imprisonment of political opponents without bail, the group said. During this period, she was transferred back and forth to the prison hospital due to her deteriorating health condition.

After Nitiporn was returned to prison on April 4, the Thai Prison Service said she was able to eat and drink normally, but was weak and suffering from swollen limbs and anaemia. The ministry said she refused to take “anti-anaemia minerals and nutritional supplements.”

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Pano Wongcha Om/Reuters/Archive

Nitiporn Sansangkum, center, with members of the “Bad Student” group during an anti-government protest in Bangkok on September 19, 2020.

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

The lese majeste case was brought against her in connection with a 2022 protest in which she unfurled a banner in a crowded Bangkok shopping mall that read: “Did the royal motorcade cause a disturbance?”

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

In an open letter Nitiporn wrote from prison in March, she said that growing up as a judge’s daughter made her realize that “this country does not exist to serve justice for the young.”

“You don’t have to be a judge’s daughter to understand the extent of the failure in the judicial system. They are not there for the people, they are shamelessly there for the powers and a few groups of people in this country,” she wrote. “Once the question was asked and the horn sounded, You go to prison.”

Nitiporn’s death shocked many in the country and sparked renewed calls for reform of the judicial system, which allows activists to be denied bail and held for long periods before trial.

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

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

On Tuesday evening, supporters held a candlelight vigil outside the criminal court in southern Bangkok. Among those in attendance was Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, a fellow activist who is also facing lèse majeste charges for her participation in the 2020 protests.

“I feel very shocked. I ask myself, ‘Is she really dead?’ She did not get any justice in her cases,” Panusaya told CNN on Wednesday.

Panusaya called on Prime Minister Sritha Thavisin’s government to respond to her death, and demanded the release of all political prisoners in Thailand.

“Must more people die before you care?” she asked.

On Wednesday, Sritha described Nitiporn’s death as a “tragic accident,” adding that he had ordered the Thai 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 get justice.”

In response to calls for the release of all political prisoners, Strittha said: “I think the Minister of Justice has heard the call, and is working to look at the entire legal system. We have to give justice to everyone.”

Thailand It has some of the strictest lese majeste laws and provisions in the world for those convicted under Article 112 of the country’s criminal code, and can last for decades. It was hundreds of people Their trial in recent years Among them was Mongkol Therakhot, who was sentenced A record 50 years In prison in January over social media posts deemed harmful to the king.

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For years, Human rights organizations Freedom of expression activists said lèse majeste has been used as a tool Political tool To silence critics of the Thai government.

Rights groups say the right to freedom of expression in Thailand has been under increasing 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 from the start of those protests in July 2020 through March 2024, at least 1,954 people have been prosecuted or charged for participating in political rallies and speaking out, 286 of those cases involving children.

The group added that at least 270 people were charged with lese majeste during that period.

“Ms Nitiporn’s death is evidence that the problems of political prosecution and detention of pro-democracy activists, especially in lese majeste cases, are still very much alive under the Pheu Thai government,” said Akarachai Chimanikarkati, the group’s advocacy leader. CNN.

Akarachai added that Nitiporn’s death comes as Thailand is vying for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and as the Thai government is negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union.

He said: “The right to release on bail must be granted to political detainees who have not been convicted of any crimes by a final ruling.” “The price of basic freedoms should not be their lives.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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