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Detained Thai Activist Dies of Cardiac Arrest After Monthslong Hunger Strike

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Twenty-eight-year-old Thai activist Netiporn Sanesangkhom, also known as “Bung,” died in a hospital in Bangkok on Tuesday after going into cardiac arrest. She had been hospitalized following a hunger strike she started in January to protest the country’s judicial system and imprisonment of political dissenters like herself.

Bung’s death comes amid waves of similar hunger strikes initiated by pro-democracy protesters detained in Thailand, which has come under criticism for its ironfisted treatment of activists at odds with the country’s conservative establishment.

“The death of Ms. Netiporn is evidence that the problems of political prosecution and detention of pro-democracy activists, especially in lèse-majesté cases, are still very much alive under the Pheu Thai government,” Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a group that assists those facing political charges, including Bung, told TIME in a statement Tuesday, referring to the country’s royal defamation law used to prosecute activists calling for monarchy reform and to the new ruling party, Pheu Thai, after last year’s national elections. 

“Netiporn’s tragic death in custody shows how brutal the punishment for royal defamation is in Thailand,” Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch, tells TIME. “10 months after [Prime Minister] Srettha taking the office, Thailand remains as repressive as it was under Military rule.”

“Sadly, [Netiporn’s] demands were met with silence by the Thai government and judiciary,” he added. “No improvement in terms of respect for fundamental freedoms and no leniency for those trying to challenge the monarchy.”

Bung was a member of Thaluwang, a youth-led activist group that advocates for democratic reforms and whose members have regularly found themselves targets of authorities’ surveillance and persecution.

The Department of Corrections Hospital, where Bung had been in and out of since February, called her family at 6 a.m. on Tuesday to inform them that she had been administered CPR as she had fallen unconscious and her heart had stopped beating, local media reported. She was reportedly rushed to ThaMMAsat University Hospital in Bangkok and was pronounced dead at 11:22 a.m. 

The Justice Minister has ordered a committee to be established to look into Bung’s death and an autopsy will be conducted on her body.

Bung was one of around 270 activists charged with lese-majeste since a wave of pro-democracy—and anti-monarchy—protests broke out in 2020. According to TLHR, nearly 2,000 people in total have been prosecuted for a range of charges for their involvement in the protest movement, and many charged with lese-majeste, the group says, are jailed without bail. 

Bung was prosecuted in seven cases, including two charges of lese-majeste. She had been detained at the Central Women’s Correctional Institution since Jan. 26, first sentenced to one month in prison for contempt of court and then extended after her bail was revoked on a lese-majeste charge. 

According to a statement on Tuesday by the Corrections Department, Bung resumed eating and drinking in hospital since April 4, but remained in a weakened condition. “Blood tests showed mild anemia and low electrolytes, but Ms. Netiporn refused to take electrolytes and blood-nourishing vitamins, leading to the aforementioned symptoms and her death today,” the statement said.

In February, Bung wrote a will and signed documents rejecting life-extending medical intervention, opting to donate her body to the ThaMMAsat University Hospital.

By April 1, Bung’s 65th day of hunger strike, her weight had dropped from about 185 pounds before hospitalization to about 137 pounds, according to a Facebook post by her activist group. The post added that, while she was lethargic, Bung was determined to continue with the strike. 

Bung had previously gone on another hunger strike in 2022 for over 60 days, sparking concern from international rights groups. 

Last year, two young activists went on a hunger strike that lasted over 50 days while in detention to call for judicial reform and the release of other detained activists, sparking a wave of solidarity protests.

Bung’s death “also highlights the importance of the people’s amnesty bill, which is currently before the parliament,” TLHR says, referring to one of several proposals to grant amnesty to those facing political charges. “The right to bail must be granted to political detainees who have not been found guilty of any crimes by a final judgment.”

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