Bound by unconditional love for their children and anger at the Thai state, the mothers of pro-democracy protesters detained for weeks without bail for allegedly defaming the royal family are keeping vigils outside the prison where their loved ones are being held.
The vigils come as Thailand’s turbulent political landscape is rocked once more by a youth-driven protest movement demanding reforms to the entire power structure, including the previously untouchable monarchy, headed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protests which drew tens of thousands late last year fizzled after key leaders were arrested, many under multiple charges of breaking the lèse-majesté law, better known as “112,” the harsh defamation measure which protects the palace from criticism.
Each conviction under Section 112 of the Thai criminal code carries between three and 15 years in prison.
The 10 core leaders have been held without bail, but more than 70 others have been charged with the offense since late last year, the youngest just 16 at the time he was charged.
Rights groups say the law has been wielded like a hammer against protesters who revealed the fault lines between young and old, conservative and progressives in Thai society.
“They have weaponized the law against my son,” said Sureerat Chiwarak, mother of one of the most vocal protest leaders, Parit Chiwarak - better known by his nickname “Penguin” — who faces more than a dozen charges under the law.
Penguin, 23, has been held since February — but was transferred to a hospital over the weekend after a hunger strike which is entering its eighth week.
“Even though he’s yet to be proven guilty by a court… they have killed his future. But as mothers, we can’t stop; we won’t sit around and watch them be jailed,” she told VOA News.
On Friday, she shaved her head in protest outside a court, demanding bail from a legal system she says has kept her son in pretrial detention without justification.
The next day, she joined four other mothers outside Bangkok’s remand prison, standing in front of life-size cardboard cut-outs of their children for a symbolic 112 minutes, with a large sign tied to the prison fence reading, “Give us our children back.”
They shared hugs, clasped hands and wore t-shirts with photos of their children, touching acts of solidarity as the mass protests are reduced to hundreds by fear of the law as well as a recent rebound of the coronavirus.
The group has been dubbed the “Ratsamoms” — the People’s Mothers — a spinoff from the Ratsadon People’s Movement, which has been protesting at courts and jails since March.
“I don’t want my child to feel lonely,” said Suriya Sithijirawattanakul the mother of Panussaya (nicknamed “Rung”) the bespectacled 23-year-old who ignited the reform movement in August last year when she took to the stage with 10 demands including that the powers of the monarchy be kept within the constitution.
“She’s been in jail for a long while now and she’s also on hunger strike. She deserves to be out on bail.”
Thailand is a divided kingdom.
To royalists, led by the government of former army chief turned premier Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the youth movement overstepped the mark by calling out the monarchy.
They revere the palace and cast the institution as above the political fray, although it runs the country in partnership with a military which has set back democracy movements with 13 coups since 1932.
The lèse-majesté law had not been wielded since King Vajiralongkorn, Thailand’s immensely wealthy monarch, came to the throne in 2019.
In November, Prayut warned protesters that he would “use every law” to squash a movement which demanded the palace abide by its constitutional role and decouple its support from the military.
With the protest leaders facing months or years in detention, some observers say their mothers may be one of the final keys to reigniting the public conscience.
“At the end of the day it’s just these mums who come out with no conditions, who will give everything for their kids,” Amornrat Chokepamitkul, an opposition MP who joined Saturday’s action at the prison.
“I think they’re going to become a source of power for the movement,” the lawmaker said.