A stream of protesters outside the Supreme Court in Bangkok held up the three-fingered salute — a symbol of defiance against the government. “Fight, fight, fight,” they yelled to two young women who were taken out of a makeshift tent in stretchers, both so weak that they could not open their eyes.
The women, Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon, 21, and Orawan “Bam” Phuphong, 23, were taken to a hospital on Friday evening after their family members and lawyer said that they were on the brink of death. They were on their 44th day of a hunger strike, protesting the detention of Thai political prisoners, calling for judiciary changes and the repeal of a law that criminalizes criticizing the Thai monarchy.
Their plight has been discussed by Thailand’s House of Representatives and has drawn urgent expressions of concern from international human rights groups, which have called on the government to engage with the activists.
In 2022, both women were accused of violating the law against criticizing the monarchy after they conducted a poll asking whether the royal motorcade was an inconvenience to Bangkok residents. They were released on bail in March that year under the condition that they no longer participate in protests or organize activities that defame the royal family.
The doctors are now most concerned about the women’s kidneys failing, according to their lawyer, Krisadang Nutcharut. “Their parents and I were consulting each other and saw that they wouldn’t make it past tonight, according to the blood results,” Mr. Krisadang said.
The women’s protest has presented the Thai government with a political dilemma two months before a general election: Meet their demands and risk appearing weak among voters or do nothing and face a potential fallout that could trigger widespread unrest.
Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister, has called on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand to address the women’s demands. Mr. Prayuth, through a government spokesman, has said he hopes the two women are safe but urged parents to “monitor their children’s behavior” and for all Thais to “help protect the nation, religion and monarchy.”
The women began their hunger strike in January. Last month, Ms. Tantawan, a university student, and Ms. Orawan, a grocery store worker, were hospitalized and put on saline drips after their conditions became critical. They have stopped drinking water but are sipping electrolytes on doctors’ orders.
On Thursday, the pair announced that they would stop taking electrolytes, too. In an interview with The New York Times on Thursday evening, Mr. Krisadang said the women’s spirits remain unbowed.
In January, Thailand’s justice minister told Ms. Tantawan and Ms. Orawan that the government would consider reforming the bail system, though he did not address their core demands, which include reforming the country’s judicial system.
Thailand’s opposition parties, Pheu Thai and Move Forward, submitted an urgent motion for a debate in the House of Representatives in February to propose measures to save the women’s lives. The debates stopped short of addressing the activists’ demands to abolish lèse-majesté, the law that makes criticizing the monarchy illegal, fearful of alienating royalists before the election. (The protesters are also calling for the abolition of Thailand’s sedition laws.)
Thailand has one of the world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws, which forbids defaming, insulting or threatening the king and other members of the royal family. Known as Article 112, the charge carries a minimum sentence of three years and a maximum sentence of up to 15 years. It is the only law in Thailand that imposes a minimum jail term.
Previously, Thai authorities confined the use of lèse-majesté against people who explicitly criticized the leading members of the monarchy. But after Mr. Prayuth seized power in a coup in 2014, the number of topics that constituted lèse-majesté expanded to include criticism of the institution, and even deceased kings.
Thailand informally suspended the use of the lèse-majesté law in 2018, according to Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, Amnesty International’s regional researcher on Thailand. The move coincided with calls from the international community for Thailand to respect their commitments to the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
But after the 2020 protests, Mr. Prayuth, who has repeatedly vowed to remain loyal to the monarchy, instructed all government officials to “use every single law” to prosecute anyone who criticized the monarchy.
The authorities have charged at least 225 people, including 17 minors, for violating the lèse-majesté law since 2020. Thousands more have been slapped with other criminal charges. As more activists were targeted, the mass protests slowly began to wane.
Sunai Phasuk, the senior researcher for Thailand for Human Rights Watch, said the case of Ms. Tantawan and Ms. Orawan and their public survey was the clearest example of how the law is being arbitrarily enforced. “The use of the lèse-majesté law has become more and more arbitrary, in that even the slightest criticism of both the individuals and the institution can lead to legal action,” he said.
On Thursday evening, dozens of supporters appeared outside the Supreme Court in support of the women. They held sunflowers and cards that read, “Abolish lèse-majesté law.” (Ms. Tantawan’s name in Thai means “sunflower.”)
“These kids are so brave, my generation cannot compete with them,” said Yupa Ritnakha, a 65-year-old supporter who was holding a bunch of sunflowers outside of the Supreme Court. “They are willing to die for their cause.”
This is not Ms. Tantawan’s first hunger strike. In April 2022, she went on a hunger strike for over a month after she was detained for violating her bail by posting details of the royal motorcade on Facebook. She was released on bail once again, but placed under house arrest.
Friends of Ms. Tantawan and Ms. Orawan say they are disappointed that the women’s campaign has failed to sway the general public or motivate the government to introduce reforms.
“It’s unfortunate for them that this is happening at a low point of the protest movement,” said Mr. Chanatip, of Amnesty. “After three years of an official crackdown on the protests, people are quite burned out.”
Ryn Jirenuwat contributed reporting.