By Gaspar Ruiz-Canela and Sirin Mungcharoen
Bangkok, Jul 4 (EFE).- Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul goes to class like any other university student in Bangkok, but unlike most, she has to wear an electronic monitoring (EM) device on her ankle and faces 26 charges, she says, for her activism within Thailand’s pro-democracy movement.
This month marks two years since students took to the streets in peaceful mass demonstrations to demand reform of the political system, but the movement has been subjected to intense repression with more than 200 people now charged with royal defamation, according to NGOs.
Protest leader Rung, a 23-year-old student at the Faculty of Psychology and Anthropology in Thammasat University in Bangkok, says she has been charged with 10 counts of violating the lese-majeste law, or Section 112, which carries a jail term of three to 15 years in prison for whoever defames or insults members of the royal family.
Other charges against her include “provoking disorder” and violating the pandemic restrictions in the pro-democracy protests, which attracted hundreds of thousands of people during 2020 and 2021.
“Honestly, it is tough for me (…) I cannot have a normal life,” Rung told EFE at an event recently organized by pro-democracy and LGBT+ activists in Bangkok.
Like other activists charged by the authorities, Rung lives with an EM ankle bracelet that shows police where she is at all times. The device must be charged regularly and sometimes has technical problems. She must also follow a curfew from 9 pm to 6 am, as well as attend regular court appointments.
In July 2020, the student-led protesters had been calling for the dissolution of parliament, a new constitution and an end to intimidation of activists.
But on a protest stage that August, Rung read out a list of 10 demands for reform of the monarchy in order to reduce its power and spending, breaking a long-held taboo around speaking openly about the institution.
The open debate of the monarchy among the protesters, the calling for the resignation of prime minister and the swelling of protests provoked crackdowns by riot police with water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets against mostly peaceful demonstrators.
More than 200 individuals, including 16 children, have been charged under the country’s lese majeste law in just over 18 months since November 2020 alone, according to the International Federation for Human Rights and Thai Lawyers for Human Rights last month.
“I haven’t been to my house for two years. One day a policeman came to ask who lived there. Well, it wasn’t to threaten me, but I thought it was intimidating and I haven’t been back home since,” Rung said.
Three times she has been put in jail, where she once went on a hunger strike.
Despite all the problems, the student is certain that new generations will continue the activism within the pro-democracy movement.
Thai authorities defend the use of severe laws such as Section 112, despite criticism by the United Nations.
Maynu Supitcha, a 20-year-old student at Bangkok’s Rangsit University, began their activism in the 2020 protests and recently has conducted street surveys on the monarchy, and other peaceful protest actions, for which they said authorities handed them three lese-majeste charges.
“Everyone stares at the (ankle) monitor a lot. Sometimes it malfunctions and scratches my ankle,” said Maynu, who is studying online gaming and sports computing.
Maynu’s family does not understand their activism and they decided to become financially independent by selling souvenirs through activist group ThaluWang, and other means.
Panupong “Mike Rayong” Jardnok, a veteran activist who cut his teeth working on behalf of disadvantaged youth, said he has been slapped with more than 40 charges, including 16 related to lese-majeste, which could see him spend nearly a lifetime in jail.
The 25-year-old Ramkhamhaeng University political science student speaks calmly and softly, but at protests he displays the charisma and tenacity of a born leader.