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Maynu Supitcha

A new generation of female activists are forcing tough conversations despite state intimidation and arrests

Thai Enquirer, 26 April 2022

The handcuffs on Maynu Supitcha’s hands were deliberately tightened to inflict as much pain as possible. Every movement sent a shock of pain from her wrist up her arm as she walked to her temporary cell on March 28.

Moments earlier, a judge told her that she violated Thailand’s royal defamation laws, or Section 112, an offense that comes with a 15 year prison sentence. The 18-year-old activist was then taken into a dark detention room in the back of the courthouse as she waited for her bail request to clear for seven hours.

Inside the cell, officers made it known that they disapproved of her activism.

​”They would walk by and point fingers at me, asking each other, ‘is this that girl who insulted the [the institution]?” Maynu recalled her experience to Thai Enquirer.

“Play rough with this one then,” the officers said.

Maynu was finally released on bail, but she still faces royal defamation charges for conducting a public poll at a shopping mall earlier in the year. The provocative poll made headlines around the nation. The women held a whiteboard along with red stickers and asked the public to vote on sensitive topics that touched upon the establishment.

“This year, we’ve started to become more active again in physical activities in the form of polls,” Maynu said. “The goal is to ask questions about something people do not dare to talk about.”

The youth activists feel that conducting these polls does not pose an insult or threat to tradition, merely an intellectual exercise where the public can be honest about their views.

Maynu first caught the country’s attention when she was photographed raising the three finger salute, a symbol of defiance taken from the Hunger Games that has since come to define opposition to authoritarian regimes across Southeast Asia.

But now she’s a leading young feminist involved in the anti-government organization. The group endeavors to spread awareness about who really holds political and economic power. But unlike mass protests or giving speeches, their use of public polling and other provocative open tactics, are difficult to define as illegal and consequently making the activists a challenge to the state and hard to stop.

Observers and rights groups say the activists are unpredictable and mobilize without warning. Most of the women are unhindered by arrests and the risk of serious criminal charges, including lese majeste and sedition, that have already been thrown at them.

Even in the face of so many legal obstacles, the women are still willing to put their freedoms on the line for the truth.

“Of course I’m afraid, very afraid,” Maynu said. “Two of my friends recently had their bail revoked. I’ve heard from insiders that we are closely monitored and some of us are now on the state’s watchlist.”

Death is the worst-case scenario if her activism continues to upset people in the highest places in power, she said.

“This topic has already been covered by other activists and academics, but some of them either faced severe legal consequences or disappeared. Others were kidnapped or disappeared, so it’s possible to not come out alive.”

On April 22, Maynu was detained again while enroute to the beachtown of Cha-Aam. She said she was unaware that there was an arrest warrant for her and her friends. She spent the entire day detained. Later the police raided the apartment of one of the activists and confiscated an iPhone, a computer and other protest material.

Intimidation and harassment

For the past two years, demonstrators have been calling for Prime Minister and former coup leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha to step down, and for new elections to be held. But it is their touching of conservative institutions that have really made headlines and dining table conversations.

But when the movement’s main leaders were rounded up and arrested, the protests were effectively defeated. Then when the street demonstrations ended, the state continued to carry out a systematic campaign of repression targeting hundreds of young people.

The campaign includes intimidation and surveillance at home, in the workplace or in travel. Legal analysts say often activists are detained on trumped-up charges, and once inside prison, some activists have reported that they were abused or threatened in custody.

“There are worrying signs that the Thai authorities would resort to strong arms tactics to silence them,” Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Thai Enquirer. “Let’s not forget that Thailand is a country with long records of political violence.”

But Sunai explained that these young activists are “unpredictable and mobilize spontaneously,” and that “they appear to be unhindered by arrests and a barrage of serious criminal charges—including lese majeste and sedition—that have been thrown at them.”

At least 1,787 people have been prosecuted for participating in the Thai protests from 2020-2022, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. The legal group has documented 173 cases where people were charged with royal defamation over the same period. Earlier in April, two citizen journalists were also charged with Section 112 and could be facing 15 years in prison for live broadcasting an event at a shopping mall.

“It’s not just the police, but also the people,” Maynu said about the harassment she’s faced. “There was a time when I went shopping with my friends at a major mall, and six security guards surrounded us, saying we were a national security threat and would do damage their mall.”

Even at her own home she can’t evade the eyes of police. “Plainclothes officers follow me, but they also approach me and talk to me and my friends, especially during the royal motorcade events and have verbally harassed us.”

Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon, another young activist involved in monarchy-reform activities, is not only facing Section 112 from an event in February, she has been routinely targeted by plainclothes police for months. Since joining the volunteer protest security group, WeVolunteer (Wevo) at the height of the protests in 2020, she has continued to tackle monarchy reform in other forms.

“In the beginning of last year we decided to lead activities by ourselves,” Tawan told Thai Enquirer.

“One of the first activities was the poll that asked people how they were impacted by the motorcades.”

Tawan was recently arrested for a second time in mid April. The authorities claimed she violated her bail conditions for attending an event near a motorcade. Her bail request has been denied and she has been on hunger strike since April 19. She has been physically assaulted in clashes with police. But it’s the relentless surveillance by the security forces that has her feeling frustrated.

“I have been followed a lot before the polls, people visiting and peeping into my house or following me in a car. First I was unsure but it was clear I was being followed,” Tawan explained.

Months before, a group of 10 officers entered her home and attempted to pressure her parents to force her to stop her activities. Later she was pursued by plainclothes police on motorcycles, some of them even followed her on the expressway. More recently, Tawan was tailed and threatened by unidentified men as she was leaving a demonstration.

Despite the legal harassment and intimidation, the young feminists are still undeterred.

“Death would be the risk I could not take, but I am not going to stop doing these activities,” Maynu said. Because I feel we have no choice but to move forward.”