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Tantawan Tuatulanon: The fearless young activist challenging Thai royalist establishment

Written by World Events

Tantawan Tuatulanon, a political activist known for campaigning against royal motorcades, is back in the spotlight after her latest escapade sparked both public controversy and legal action.

After being charged twice with lese majeste in 2022, the 22-year-old was arrested again on February 13 and this time accused of sedition, breaking the Computer Crime Act, and causing a public disturbance. Sedition alone carries a penalty of up to seven years in jail as per Article 116 of the Criminal Code.

The new charges stem from an incident on February 4 when a car in which Tantawan was traveling chased the motorcade of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn on a Bangkok expressway. The driver of the vehicle, later identified as Natthanon Chaimahabud, had earlier honked continuously while the motorcade was passing.

After police blocked the car from joining the motorcade, Tantawan, the front-seat passenger, engaged in a heated argument with an on-duty police officer. She questioned the “preferential treatment” given to certain vehicles, saying it disrupted potentially urgent trips by members of the public. She also broadcast the argument live on Facebook.

Natthanon, the driver, faces the same three charges as Tantawan, plus insulting an on-duty official and sounding his horn without proper reason.

The duo was widely criticized for the stunt, even by the opposition Move Forward Party, which has relentlessly campaigned for reform of the lese majeste law, or Article 112 of the Criminal Code, claiming it is routinely used as a political weapon. The law makes insulting or threatening the monarchy a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

The motorcade incident triggered a heated debate on social media that escalated into brawls between pro-reform and pro-monarchy activists outside a Bangkok shopping mall on February 10.

Several groups offered support for the popular Princess Sirindhorn, viewing the incident as harassment of a beloved royal figure.

 Student activist

Tantawan, 22, says she was studying marketing at a Singapore university when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing her to switch to online classes.

“I returned to Thailand for a semester break. When the pandemic started, the university shifted to online study. I often joined anti-government protests while having to attend online courses as well,” she told Prachatai media outlet in an interview in March 2022.

Tantawan told reporters that she became interested in Thai politics after following news about the Move Forward’s predecessor, Future Forward Party, which was controversially disbanded by a court order in February 2020 for accepting illegal political donations. She joined her first anti-government protest in August of that year during the tenure of then-prime minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha.

She said that her political activism took up a lot of time, so she decided to drop out of the Singaporean university. She later enrolled in Thammasat University’s Faculty of Law.

The activist said she originally chose a marketing course to gain knowledge that would help her family business. However, she shifted to law after joining the street protests and discovering the “injustice” in Thai society.

“It’s obvious that there’s no justice whatsoever. When you have power, you can do anything. I feel that our country’s justice system has collapsed. Everyone needs to help change this so that justice is restored in Thailand,” she said.

‘I have no fear’

Tantawan said that after attending many protests, she decided to join the We Volunteer (WeVo) group of security guards for the rallies. Joining WeVo was her introduction to a wider network of young political campaigners.

The activist said she felt no fear about joining street rallies as a guard despite crackdowns by police, adding she was frustrated at being unable to contribute more to previous protests.

“I felt that I had to fight rather than live in fear. I felt compelled to clash head-on with the source of my fear,” she said.

In her interview almost two years ago, Tantawan said she also wanted the lese majeste law to be abolished to “allow space to discuss the monarchy”. She described the abolition of Article 112 as the “first step” to reform of the Thai monarchy.

Arrested several times

Often dubbed “Tawan Thaluwang” for the name of her monarchy-reform group, Tantawan first made headlines in February 2022 when she was arrested for conducting a poll at a Bangkok mall asking passersby if their lives were disrupted by royal motorcades. She was charged with lese majeste, sedition, and resisting officials in their duty.

She was released on bail but then rearrested a month later for allegedly defaming the monarchy during her Facebook livestream about a royal motorcade on Ratchadamnoen Avenue. This time the Criminal Court set conditions for her bail release, including refraining from any acts that may damage the monarchy, not inciting or taking part in any demonstration that may lead to public disorder, and wearing an electronic monitoring device.

Bail release was revoked after she allegedly broke one of those conditions in April 2022. In detention, Tantawan staged a hunger strike and was eventually granted temporary release after then-Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat offered himself as guarantor. The Criminal Court then assigned Pita as the young activist’s bail supervisor.

In January 2023, Tantawan and fellow monarchy-reform activist Orawan “Bam” Phupong announced they were voluntarily rescinding their temporary release. After returning to detention at the Central Women’s Correctional Institution, they staged a hunger strike to demand the release of all “political prisoners”. The court granted them bail one month later after their health deteriorated.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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