A pro-democracy activist is being prosecuted under the lèse-majesté law for livestreaming on Facebook in front of the UN buildings. Here’s why.

On 5 March 2022, “Tawan” Tantawan Tuatulannon, a then-20-year-old pro-democracy activist, did a livestream on Facebook in front of the UN buildings in Bangkok where a royal motorcade was scheduled to take place. The authorities told her to stop and leave the area. She didn’t. So she was arrested and is now being prosecuted for violating, inter alia, Section 112 (lèse-majesté) of the Criminal Code, the punishment for which is 3 to 15 years’ imprisonment.

If convicted, she could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

Her trial is scheduled to take place on 8-10, 16-18, and 22 August 2023 at the Ratchada Criminal Court.

This article explains who Tawan is, and why the Thai government is prosecuting her under the lèse-majesté law for her Facebook livestream in front of the UN buildings.

Who is “Tawan”?

Tawan is a pro-democracy activist associated with pro-democracy groups Draconis Revolution and Thalu Wang (Shattering the Palace). Among other things, she has advocated for the abolition of Section 112 (lèse-majesté) of the Thai Criminal Code, reforms of the Thai monarchy, and the right to bail of political detainees. As a result of her peaceful political activities, expressions, and demonstrations, she has been charged with various criminal offenses, including the lèse-majesté offense.

As of 11 August 2023, Tawan is currently facing 12 ongoing criminal cases — 8 at the investigative stage and 4 at the trial stage.

She is currently being prosecuted under Section 112 of the Criminal Code in 2 cases. In the first case, she was charged with lèse-majesté for conducting a public opinion poll about royal motorcades at Siam Paragon, a popular mall in central Bangkok on 8 February 2022. In the second case, she was charged for doing a Facebook live in front of the UN buildings along the planned route of a royal motorcade in Bangkok. This article focuses on the latter incident.

What happened in front of the UN buildings on 5 March 2022? And why was she charged under the lèse-majesté law?

On 5 March 2022, Tawan did a Facebook live in front of the UN buildings along a planned royal motorcade route. “Now I am alone in front of the UN [buildings]. There are horses,” she said during the livestream. “Who will be passing through this area?”

Soon, numerous police officers approached her and ordered her to stop livestreaming on Facebook because a royal motorcade was scheduled to pass through the area. One officer told her that they had a duty to provide security to the royal motorcade. Another police officer told her that her conduct was “inappropriate” and that “normal people” would not do what she did.

Insisting that she had the right to be on the public walkway, Tawan refused to leave. As a result, several female police officers proceeded to arrest and carry her into a police vehicle.

At one point, Tawan said, “I came alone. How many people came [to surround me] just now? Around 50, 60 people. What security are you providing?”

Tawan’s right arm was bruised as a result of the arrest.

After being taken into the police vehicle, Tawan was initially brought to the Phaya Thai Police Station. Upon arrival, Tawan continued with her Facebook livestream and refused to get off the police vehicle. All of a sudden, a plainclothes police officer snatched away her phone and ended the livestream. The police then drove her away without telling her where they were heading. Luckily, an independent journalist who followed the police car learned that Tawan was being taken to the Narcotics Suppression Bureau (NSB).

When the lawyers arrived at the NSB, the police did not allow them to meet Tawan, explaining that their “superior” had not given them permission to do so. It should be noted that, under Thai law, an individual who has been arrested has the right to meet and consult with a lawyer.

After almost 2 hours of waiting, the police finally permitted a lawyer to meet Tawan. The police informed Tawan of 2 charges: (1) failure to comply with an officer’s order without an appropriate reason or excuse (Section 368 of the Criminal Code, punishable by a prison term not exceeding 10 days, a fine not exceeding 5,000 baht, or both), and (2) resisting an officer who was performing his duty (Section 138 of the Criminal Code, punishable by a prison term not exceeding 1 year, a fine not exceeding 20,000 baht, or both).

Tawan denied all charges and refused to sign the arrest report because the police confiscated her phone without cause and did not inform her about where she was being taken after leaving the Phaya Thai Police Station.

Tawan was detained at the NSB that night because, according to the police, she had not been searched and the police needed more time to investigate whether Tawan committed other offenses. She spent a night in jail with other detainees accused of committing drug-related offenses.

In the next morning, Tawan was further charged with violating Section 112 (lèse-majesté) of the Criminal Code as well as Sections 14(2) (entering false data into the computer system which may cause the public to panic or damage to national security) and 14(3) (entering false data into the computer system which constitutes a national security offense) of the Computer Crime Act B.E. 2550 (2007). Section 14 offenses carry a penalty of imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years, a fine not exceeding THB 100,000, or both.

Afterwards, the police continued to refuse to release Tawan from the NSB. She was therefore detained at the NSB for one more night.

On 7 March 2022, the Criminal Court released Tawan on bail at 100,000 baht, subject to the following 2 conditions:

  1. she must not engage in acts similar to the ones of which she had been accused or participate in activities that may cause unrest or damage to the institution of the monarchy; and
  2. she must wear an electronic-monitoring device.

Prolonged pretrial detention

On 20 April 2022, the Criminal Court revoked Tawan’s bail. The Court reasoned that, by posting on Facebook about the King and by attempting to get close to a royal motorcade on 17 March 2022, Tawan was engaging in acts similar to the ones of which she had been accused.

Although anyone could participate in the reception of a royal motorcade, the Court held that Tawan’s intention was not genuine, as evidenced by, for example, her online post “royal motorcade is a nuisance”.

What is noteworthy about the bail revocation on 20 April 2022 is that the Court prepared its own documents and evidence against Tawan and used it to support its decision to revoke Tawan’s bail. In other words, the Court relied on evidence not included in the bail revocation request submitted by an investigative official.

After her bail was revoked, Tawan was transferred to the Central Women’s Correctional Institution. She began her hunger strike to protest for her right to bail.

On 25 May 2022, she was indicted by the prosecutor under the above charges.

After 37 days of detention and hunger strike, on 26 May 2022, the Court finally granted bail to Tawan, with Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of Move Forward Party, as the guarantor. Tawan was subjected to 5 bail conditions:

  1. she must wear an electronic-monitoring device around her ankle at all times;
  2. she must not leave her house during her temporary release (i.e. house arrest), unless she is ill or she has received the Court’s permission to leave her house due to her illness. Medical evidence must be presented to the court within three days;
  3. she must not engage in acts that are similar to the ones of which she has been accused or participate in activities that may cause public unrest;
  4. she must not engage in acts that damage or impact the institution of the monarchy; and
  5. she must not leave the country without the Court’s permission.

It should be noted that, between 26 May 2022 and 16 January 2023, Tawan was subjected to a 24-hour house arrest. She could not leave her house without the Court’s permission.

Hunger strike and the right to bail

Between 14 and 19 November 2022, Thailand hosted APEC Economic Leaders’ meetings at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center (QSNCC) in Bangkok. Many pro-democracy activists saw this as an opportunity to advocate for democracy and human rights with the world leaders.

As pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders organized demonstrations during the time of APEC meetings, many of them faced judicial harassment and physical violence by the Thai authorities. For example, on 18 November 2022, the “Rasadon Stop APEC 2022” protesters were violently dispersed by the Crowd Control Police as they marched towards QSNCC. Protesters and journalists were beaten by police officers with full-body armors and shields. Rubber bullets and tear gas were indiscriminately fired into the crowd. One protester was shot in his right eye and is now blind.

“Get” Sopon Surariddhidhamrong and “Baipor” Natthanit Duangmusit, pro-democracy activists who were both released on bail, participated in a protest on 17 November 2022. As a result, on 9 January 2023, the Criminal Court revoked their bail and sent the two to prison.

Protesting the bail revocation of Get and Baipor, on 16 January 2023, Tawan and “Bam” Orrawan (last name withheld) traveled to the Criminal Court to revoke their own bail. The Court accepted the two’s request and they were sent to prison.

Credit: ไข่แมวชีส

In the evening of 18 January 2023, Tawan and Bam announced the start of their dry hunger strike, which they said would continue until their 3 demands are met: (1) reforms to the judicial system under which, inter alia, human rights are taken into account, judges are free from external powers, and court executives must not interfere with trials; (2) cease prosecution of individuals who came out to exercise their right to freedom of expression; and (3) all political parties must propose a policy to protect human rights by abolishing Sections 112 (lèse-majesté) and 116 (sedition) of the Criminal Code.

On many occasions, Tawan and Bam found themselves in critical, life-threatening conditions. The two had to be transferred to the Medical Correctional Hospital on the 3rd day of their hunger strike. On the 7th day, they were transferred to Thammasat University Hospital — a hospital outside the authority of the Department of Corrections — as they were concerned about their safety in a hospital under purview of the Department of Corrections.

On 7 February 2023, the Director of Thammasat University Hospital requested bail for Tawan, and the request was granted amidst the confusion of Tawan herself. Tawan stated that it was her intention to remain in detention until other political detainees had been released. Nevertheless, Tawan and Bam continued their hunger strike at Thammasat University Hospital after being granted bail by the Court.

On 24 February 2023, Tawan and Bam decided to leave Thammasat University Hospital and continue their hunger strike in front of the Supreme Court. Their demand remained the same: the release of political detainees. However, on 3 March 2023, their lawyer made the decision to send them back to Thammasat University Hospital as they were both in a critical state.

After 52 days of hunger strike, on 11 March 2023, Tawan and Bam ceased their hunger strike as they were both in critical conditions. Throughout their hunger strike, they refused to receive medical treatment.

Many political detainees were released on bail during Tawan’s and Bam’s hunger strike.

Engagement with UN mechanisms

On 6 February 2023, on behalf and with the consent of Tawan and Bam, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights submitted an urgent appeal to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The urgent appeal to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD). The urgent appeal reported to WGAD that Tawan and Bam were being prosecuted and arbitrarily detained under Section 112 (lèse-majesté) of the Criminal Code and other national security offenses.

In response, on 10 February 2023, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association stated, on his Twitter account, that “I’m very concerned with information I’ve received on the critical health conditions of the two detained Thai #HumanRights activists, who continue their 3-week hunger strike demanding the release of detained protesters in #Thailand. I’ll continue to monitor the situation closely.”

Use of lèse-majesté in Thailand

Tawan is merely one of numerous people charged under Section 112 (lèse-majesté) of the Criminal Code. Between November 2020 and July 2023, at least 253 individuals — 20 of whom are children under the age of 18 — have been charged under this law. In March 2023, a young girl was charged with lèse-majesté for something she did when she was 14 years old. Of the 76 cases where the Court of First Instance has delivered its verdict, the defendants were found guilty of lèse-majesté in 59 cases.

Since 2012, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has, on multiple occasions, requested the Thai Government to bring Section 112 of the Criminal Code into conformity with international human rights law. Most recently, in May 2023, UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on freedom of peaceful assembly, as well as the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, recommended Thailand to review Section 112 and bring it in line with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.