As activists turn to new methods in campaign for change, Thai authorities ratchet up surveillance and harassment.
Bangkok, Thailand – Tawan Tuatulanon glanced out of her vehicle’s rear window and noticed that state security forces were following dangerously close. She began recording a Facebook live video on her phone as she and her fellow monarchy reform activists discussed how they might evade the threat.
“The police are following us again,” 20-year-old Tawan told her live audience on Facebook last month. “This is not okay,” she murmured as the vehicle raced down a highway in the capital Bangkok.
Minutes earlier, the team of activists had been involved in a small scuffle at a protest where demonstrators were openly criticising the royal family near a royal motorcade. Three underage demonstrators were arrested, including a 13-year-old. During the attempted arrest, Tawan was hit in the eye by police and bruised her wrist and arm as she tried to protect the protesting children.
Already accustomed to the almost constant surveillance from intelligence officers, plainclothes police were now in pursuit of her team. The group pulled off the expressway and drove into a residential area. They then decided to get out of their vehicle and confront the apparent undercover officers.
“Why are you following us? Why don’t you come out and talk to us face to face?” Tawan barked at the police who hid inside their large black truck, and as a crowd of onlookers gathered. Eventually, the officers left.
Days after the incident on April 19, Tawan was arrested for allegedly violating her bail conditions in an ongoing royal defamation case related to a public poll she organised in February that questioned the Thai monarchy. Criticising the king, or ‘lese-majeste‘, is an offence punishable with up to 15 years in prison. Royal defamation under the Thai criminal code is referred to as Section 112, or as the public calls it simply “112.”
Tawan is part of the underground anti-monarchy group, Thaluwang, a name that translates to ‘Shattering the Palace’.
It is made up mostly of young people in their 20s, using performance art, provocative stunts and other unusual tactics to question the king’s immense hold on power, actions that were taboo until only a couple of years ago.
Also in the group is 18-year-old Supitcha ‘Maynu’ Chailom.
Maynu caught the country’s attention when she was photographed raising the three-finger salute in front of hundreds of university students in a symbol of defiance taken from the Hunger Games movie that has since come to define opposition to authoritarian regimes across Southeast Asia.
Now one of the prominent faces of a movement that wants to modernise the country, it was the group’s focus on intersectionality and gender equality that initially appealed to her.
“Thaluwang also supports gender equality and women’s rights, so this is one reason why I became involved in the organisation,” Maynu told Al Jazeera. Before joining the anti-government movement, Maynu had dreams of becoming a video game developer and designer. But now she says there are more important things to do.
“This country lacks space for young people’s dreams, games are still demonised in the press and blamed for many issues without looking at how parents raise their children and how this country does not support young people,” Maynu said. “So all of this combined has contributed to where we are now, and a few problematic institutions are still holding back Thailand, and they are powerful and scary to confront.”
Thaluwang has moved away from mass protests and speeches delivered to large crowds, instead adopting tactics that legal experts say are difficult to define as illegal. The approach is intended to make activists less vulnerable to legal harassment, but the crackdown has continued.
“We have observed that Thai authorities have increased undue restrictions on the right to protest,” Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director, told Al Jazeera. “During the last few months, authorities have charged, detained and imprisoned activists, including children, denying them their right to bail or imposing harsh bail restrictions on them. Activists have reported surveillance and harassment.”
Faced with a lese-majeste charge – the latest in a long line of monarchy reform activists who have come under legal pressure – Tawan told Al Jazeera that she is not afraid.
“Especially regarding 112, my case really highlights how problematic the law is in Thailand,” she said. “Many people see us as young people who are just expressing our opinions. So I don’t see how doing this by definition is an insult to the monarchy. And if it is, then this will make people understand that this law needs to be abolished even more.”
Colonel Kissana Phathanacharoen, deputy police spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that authorities are merely upholding the law.
“We were carrying out arrest warrants as they were wanted for violating serious laws,” said Kissana, referring to the arrest of Thaluwang activists in late April.
“We respect their rights as stated by the constitution. We are committed to protecting the people and believe in human rights. But if you violate the law, we have no choice but to enforce the law by our legal means.”
Years of resistance
For the past two years, protesters have been calling for former coup leader and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to step down, and for new elections to be held. But it is their calls for royal reform that have sent shockwaves through the country.
Calling for public scrutiny of the Thai king broke longstanding taboos surrounding the monarchy in 2020, and mass protests sparked heated public debate over the role of the royal palace in the country’s politics.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who took the throne in 2016, is often criticised for his lavish lifestyle with estimates of his wealth starting at about $30bn. But critics say he is also bringing back absolute monarchy and controls the country’s military-backed leaders, a system that a new generation of Thais argues must be reformed for the nation to move forward.
For years, researchers have documented intimidation and surveillance of government critics at home, in the workplace and on university campuses.
But even with the democracy movement’s main leaders arrested, rights groups say the authorities have carried out surveillance, legal harassment and arrests of critics at an unprecedented level.
In interviews with more than 12 Thai activists over the past six months, Al Jazeera has documented allegations of surveillance and harassment, with some even speaking of physical torture or assault for demonstrating.
“Apart from using legal means to harass activists, the state authorities also harass citizens who simply post their opinions on Facebook,” said Wannaphat Jenroumjit, a lawyer for Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) who works directly on ‘112’ cases in relation to activists calling for royal reform.
“They [the police] do so by following them or approaching them directly, or intimidating their family, or neighbours, telling them they are on the police watch list. But this sows suspicion among the community against them.”
Tawan and Maynu both say they have experienced intimidation.
Maynu has been followed by security forces and was verbally abused when she spent a day in detention.
Tawan says she has been pursued by police on numerous occasions. On one occasion, she told Al Jazeera, 10 officers entered her home and tried to convince her parents to force her to stop. Another day, two men on motorcycles almost ran her off the road, she claimed.
‘Costs for society’
According to THLR, at least 1,787 people have been prosecuted for participating in the Thai protests from 2020 to 2022. The group has documented at least 173 cases where people were charged with royal defamation over the same period.
Pikhaneth Prawang, another lawyer for TLHR, warns the approach could have broader implications for the country.
“Since the resumption of the use of ‘112’ at the end of 2020, the number of cases rose sharply,” Pikhaneth said.
“We’re seeing it used not only to target leaders, but now we’re seeing common people targeted as well. We are worried about how far this could go. Such a campaign could lead to high costs for society.”
Such costs could include a system where public trust is undermined, particularly in the judicial system. A continued erosion of trust could, Pikhaneth fears, “lead to chaos in the future.”
Days after speaking to Al Jazeera in April, multiple Thaluwang activists were arrested.
Maynu has been released on bail, but Tawan is still in detention and on hunger strike.
Over the last two weeks, three other women who represent Thaluwang have also been detained without bail, including a 17-year-old girl. In response, dozens of protesters demonstrated in front of the United States embassy on May 11, handing in a petition calling on the US to urge Thailand to release political prisoners and stop the use of 112.
Before she was arrested, Tawan told Al Jazeera that despite the pressure, she would not be deterred.
“We have been followed by police and it makes us feel unsafe,” Tawan said. “But with Section 112, I’m still not afraid. If anything, it makes me feel that I need to fight even more, and I’ve mentally prepared myself to soon be in jail. So you could definitely say that I am a very different Tawan than I was before.”