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Sureerat Chiwarak, mother of arrested anti-government protest leader Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak. Photo: Reuters

Thailand’s Ratsamoms campaign for the release of youth protesters jailed for defaming royals

  • The mothers of prominent youth activists such as Penguin and Rung are demanding for the release of their children
  • Observers say they could be a ‘powerful force’ that plants the seeds of revival for the wider protest movement, which has stalled partly due to Covid-19

Outside a remand prison in a run-down Bangkok suburb, five women stand by cardboard cut-outs of their incarcerated children. A bedsheet tied to the gates bears the message: “Give us our children back.”

This is the closest they can get to the young pro-democracy activists, who have been held for months without bail on allegations of insulting Thailand’s monarchy.

The “Ratsamoms” – a derivative of the “Ratsadon” people’s movement – have for weeks gathered outside courts and jails, standing in silence for 112 minutes, in a rebuke of the royal defamation law under section 112 of the penal code, which keeps their sons and daughters from them.

Some of the activists are barely in their 20s, but face long years in prison for their bold efforts to demand for reforms of the once untouchable monarchy. Under 112, offenders could land a jail sentence of between three and 15 years per conviction.

The experience has turned the middle-aged mothers from tepid supporters of the anti-government protests to outspoken advocates of the need for political reforms in a kingdom that sees a symbiosis between generals, tycoons and the monarchy.

Thai protests fade from streets but come alive on Clubhouse, Twitter

Sureerat Chiwarak, the mother of 23-year-old activist Parit Chiwarak, said she understood her son’s motivation to challenge the nation’s powers.

Parit, better known by his nickname “Penguin”, was taken into custody in February.


“Our rights and freedoms are disappearing before our eyes, and the kids have long seen it,” said Sureerat, clad in a T-shirt emblazoned with her son’s face, as she clutched a toy penguin.

Sureerat Chiwarak, mother of Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak. Photo: Reuters

Penguin has been on a weeks-long hunger strike over a court’s refusal to grant him bail. He has been charged with more than a dozen counts for violating section 112, and faces years in jail over allegations linked to his frontline role in the street protest movement.

At least six protest leaders have been denied bail, most of them facing multiple charges of breaching section 112. They are among some 80 people linked to the protests who were also charged with the offence.

At its height, the protests drew tens of thousands to Bangkok’s streets. They appeared to rattle the government and the palace with their articulate attacks on the monarchy – from its use of taxes to fund the lavish lifestyle of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, to its role in cementing the power of Thailand’s generals.

Thailand’s young protesters face wrath of the state with royal defamation law

But since late last year, the street movement has dwindled to a hardcore group of hundreds due to the threat of legal charges and disagreements over whether the movement should continue taking aim at the monarchy or pivot to the safer target of army chief and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.


A resurgence in coronavirus cases across Thailand has further emptied Bangkok, leaving frontline activists without a strength in numbers, which can provide protesters with some level of protection from prosecution.

Running out of options, the mothers formed an online protest group after meeting at numerous court appointments and finding bail requests repeatedly denied to their children. They organise over the LINE app and have spread their own #Ratsamoms hashtag and memes.

Observers say the Ratsamoms are an unlikely band of rebels that may plant the seeds of revival for the wider protest movement, at a time the public is more preoccupied with the pandemic than with the youth activists who electrified Thai politics last year


“Mothers never back down,” Amornrat Chokepamitkul, an opposition MP from the Move Forward Party. “They’re in front of court, prisons, week after week … these mothers can be a powerful force to get the public behind them.”

As the young protesters – including Gen Z activists like Penguin, Rung, Anon, Mike and Ammy, as they are known – languish in the Bangkok remand jail, the Ratsamoms’ vigils are drawing ever-growing supporters outraged at a justice system that holds youth leaders indefinitely, but has routinely allowed the rich and connected to walk free.

Watching what is happening to them is like pouring acid on a mother’s heart
Tik, a Ratsamoms supporter

“Everywhere else in the world, youngsters are ‘gems’. These smart, sharp, witty kids are our future,” said Tik, a retired teacher in her 50s, as she sat outside the prison. But this is Thailand, and the state is trying to create fear to keep people off the streets.


“Watching what is happening to them is like pouring acid on a mother’s heart.”

As weeks pass, the personal toll mounts on the activists’ loved ones, with their absences felt at family dinner tables and get-togethers.

But at least one family should enjoy a reunion. Late on Thursday, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul was granted bail by the criminal court.


Rung, 23, last August read out a bold declaration from a student stage calling for constitutional curbs to the monarchy’s power. She faces at least nine charges of 112, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights activist group.

“I have no regrets over what my daughter has done, she is brave and convinced in her beliefs,” said her mother Suriya. “It’s my job and duty to protect her.”

Meanwhile, Penguin’s mother hopes support for the remaining detained youth activists will widen.

“Don’t think for one second just because it’s not your son, it doesn’t affect you,” said Sureerat, who shaved her head outside a court in a tearful act of frustration several days ago. “This affects all of us. Sooner than later, it’ll swallow us all.”