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Netiporn Sanesangkhom's death sparks outrage and calls for judicial reform

Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom, a Thai activist, died during a hunger strike in prison while awaiting trial under the lèse-majesté law. Her death has reignited calls for judicial reform and sparked a debate over the controversial law and bail rights in Thailand.

Peerapon Boonyakiat
On the first day of her hunger strike, Netiporn called for judicial reform and declared that no one should be imprisoned for their political beliefs, leading to an additional one-month sentence for contempt of court. Photo: Peerapon Boonyakiat

BANGKOK – On the morning of 14 May, Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom, a 28-year-old political activist, passed away in custody during her hunger strike after her heart had “stopped suddenly.”

Netiporn had been jailed after the Bangkok South Criminal Court revoked her bail on charges under Article 112 – Thailand’s notorious monarchy defamation law. She had been detained since 26 January this year while waiting for trial on charges related to running opinion polls on the disruption caused by royal motorcades in 2022.

The English tutor began her hunger strike on the second day of her 110-day detention. The Department of Corrections said in a press conference that her health was declining as she refused to eat despite advice from their professional medical team. She was admitted to the prison hospital on 6 February before being sent to Thammasat University Hospital due to her worsening condition.

During her stay at the prison hospital, she stated her wish to not receive any unnecessary medical treatment to save her life and to donate her body for educational purposes. It is still unclear how long she had been on hunger strike.

 

Call for royal reforms 

Known as “Bung Taluwang,” Netiporn was part of a small anti-monarchy group called “Taluwang” – meaning “shattering the palace.” The group’s activities, ranging from protest sit-ins and spraying paint to call attention from government representatives, have received both applause and criticism from the Thai public during the past few years.

According to iLAW, the freedom of expression watchdog, Netiporn was charged  for asking the public’s views on royal motorcades in the city centre on 8 February 2022.

Their actions echo calls for royal reforms that have gained momentum among young people in Thailand since 2020. One of their demands is to change Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law. If Netiporn had been found guilty, she would have faced a sentence of up to fifteen years in prison for each charge.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a legal aid group, documented 272 individuals charged under the law since 2022, with seventeen people who have been jailed while awaiting trial. Netiporn had been charged in two cases related to the criminal law, in addition to fifteen other charges for her activism.

From a series of large street protests in 2020, the youth-led movement has subsided to small stand-ups and individual struggles in recent years, including hunger strikes among young political activists. 

Growing up with a father who works as a judge and an older sister who is a lawyer, Netiporn dedicated her free time as a student to call for progressive change in schools and universities, including a successful push to end forced haircuts in schools.

Right to bail 

In 2022, Netiporn was granted bail by the Bangkok South Criminal Court after going on a hunger strike with another female activist for 64 days, with the conditions of prohibiting any activity that “causes chaos and defames the monarchy”.

In January this year, Netiporn was detained again after the criminal court revoked her bail in the case related to Article 112. During this detention, Netiporn had asked for bail, but the case was still pending.

However, in the eyes of Ida Aroonwong, who runs the Will of the People Fund, a crowdsourced effort providing bail money to Netiporn and other political dissidents under prosecution, the bail conditions are rather broad.

“What could be considered as causing chaos and defamation?” asked Ida “These conditions are also the same reasons for the charges. Why doesn’t the court grant them bail so they can fight in the trial based on the presumption of innocence for those who face criminal charges?” 

She pointed out that Netiporn had the right to be bailed, especially considering that her charges of running a public poll show that she is not a physical threat to others, unlike in murder cases – one of the reasons usually claimed by the court to prohibit bail.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) said that despite the lawyers having submitted 45 bail requests for the political prisoners in their care since January this year, no request had been granted.

Their monitoring also shows that at present, there are 43 jailed political prisoners in Thailand, among them 25 are charged under the lèse-majesté law. 18 of them are detained while awaiting trial.

The living conditions in Thai prisons have been widely criticised by human rights advocates for poor sanitation, risks of harassment, and limiting freedom of gender expression for LGBTQ+ prisoners.

On Netiporn’s first day of hunger strike, she called for judicial reform and stated that no one should be jailed for holding different political opinions. However, her criticism led to a one-month imprisonment sentence for contempt of court.

“The question is who will reform the judicial system?” said Ida “The courts, as the higher levels of the judicial system that make decisions before sending people to prison, claim to be an independent institution under royal cypher, even the government cannot interfere.”  

​​She stressed that judicial reform is needed. “To amplify what Bung called for, I want everyone to ask the court, ‘How will this death make you reconsider the ways things are in the judicial system? What will you do the next time you have to grant the bail?’”

 

Public reactions 

Against the backdrop of Thailand’s polarised political sphere, the sudden death of Netiporn was grieved by many. In the evening of her passing, crowds gathered in different cities to light candles in condolence. Students and progressive politicians condemned Thailand’s judicial institutions.

UN Human Rights Asia posted on X that they are “deeply disturbed” by her death and called for a “transparent and impartial investigation into her care.” The UN’s human rights body insisted that “freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental rights.”

Thai PM Srettha Thavisin said that fair judicial processes must be implemented for everyone. Meanwhile, Thailand’s Human Rights Commission stressed that “the right to bail and the presumption of innocence for those who face criminal charges are fundamental human rights.” 

On the other hand, pro-monarchy groups and right-wing media expressed different opinions, suggesting that Netiporn was manipulated by anti-monarchy groups. Some social media comments even celebrated her death.

A day before the young political activist’s death, Thailand’s amnesty act draft, pushed by several politicians and political campaigners, began its public hearing online. The draft, with a one-month hearing period, is expected to provide amnesty to those who have faced political charges.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

 

Read more about the struggle to safeguard the right to bail in Thailand by Ida and her colleagues.