Thai crack­down prompts dis­senters to limit pres­ence on­line

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY RICHARD S. EHRLICH

BANGKOK | Free speech ad­vo­cates and democ­racy cam­paign­ers are shrink­ing their Face­book foot­prints, en­crypt­ing their text mes­sages and watch­ing their tweets as Thai­land’s in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment ap­pears bent on cre­at­ing its home­grown ver­sion of Bei­jing’s Great Fire­wall of China.

Two years af­ter seiz­ing power on May 22, 2014, the gov­ern­ment of Thai Prime Min­is­ter Prayuth Chan-ocha says it must mon­i­tor and cen­sor the In­ter­net to stop il­le­gal on­line ac­tiv­ity — not just po­lit­i­cal crit­i­cism, in­clud­ing sites and net­works used by thieves, coun­ter­feit­ers, hu­man smug­glers and black mar­ke­teers deal­ing in weapons and drugs.

Na­tional se­cu­rity and keep­ing peace in the streets are also pri­or­i­ties for block­ing on­line con­tent, the junta says, point­ing to po­lit­i­cal clashes in Bangkok dur­ing 2010 and 2014 that left more than 120 peo­ple dead.

China’s in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated state op­er­a­tion to mon­i­tor and muz­zle “antigov­ern­ment” In­ter­net ac­tiv­ity with a so-called Great Fire­wall is much more ef­fi­cient than Thai­land’s ef­forts to date to block against on­line news, opin­ions and other data. The U.S.-trained Thai mil­i­tary does not ap­pear skilled enough to ef­fec­tively si­lence the dis­si­dents who are helped by lo­cal and for­eign “script kid­dies” and pro­fes­sional com­puter-savvy col­leagues.

But the regime is get­ting bet­ter, and has proven able to mon­i­tor lots of anti-junta ac­tiv­ity and make ar­rests.

One of the lat­est tar­gets was a satiric Face­book page named “We Love Prayuth,” which mocked the prime min­is­ter, a for­mer army chief be­fore stag­ing the 2014 coup.

Ma­nip­u­lated pho­to­graphs on the Face­book page showed Mr. Prayuth and his mil­i­tary col­leagues in ridicu­lous and in­sult­ing ways, sim­i­lar to dis­torted pho­tos of them else­where on­line. The im­ages were ac­com­pa­nied by taunts, vul­gar­i­ties and de­fi­ant com­ments.

Eight Thais al­legedly linked to the Face­book page were ar­rested in their homes on April 25, a group quickly dubbed “The Face­book 8.” They face charges of in­cite­ment un­der the Crim­i­nal Code and vi­o­lat­ing the Com­puter Crime Act.

There has been a long­stand­ing ban on in­sult­ing the Thai monar­chy, and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have jus­ti­fied the lat­est crack­down as aimed at “those who stir up vi­o­lence”, a Thai jus­tice min­istry rep­re­sen­ta­tive told the Fi­nan­cial Times news­pa­per.

Even just “lik­ing” con­tent on Face­book could be grounds for pros­e­cu­tion, of­fi­cials have warned.

The on­line of­fen­sive has even drawn U.S.-based Face­book into the fray. Many peo­ple sus­pected Face­book se­cretly al­lowed the regime to ac­cess the eight sus­pect ac­counts, in­clud­ing in­ter­nal mes­sages and lists of “friends.” The com­pany con­tends it did not pro­vide any pri­vate in­for­ma­tion to Thai au­thor­i­ties.

“Face­book uses ad­vanced sys­tems to keep peo­ple’s in­for­ma­tion se­cure,” Face­book’s Asia-Pa­cific rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Char­lene Chian, told re­porters af­ter the ar­rests.

Nev­er­the­less, para­noia spread, with some peo­ple ad­vis­ing users to can­cel their Face­book ac­counts in fa­vor of com­pet­ing so­cial me­dia plat­forms.

Oth­ers chose soft­ware such as What­sApp to en­crypt their mes­sag­ing and tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions.

The regime has de­tained hun­dreds of peo­ple dur­ing the past two years for speech-re­lated ac­tiv­ity on­line or in pub­lic.

Many of them had to un­dergo “at­ti­tude ad­just­ment” re-ed­u­ca­tion at mil­i­tary camps for sev­eral days. Those tar­geted of­ten have to sign doc­u­ments promis­ing never to en­gage in po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity against the junta or leave Thai­land with­out per­mis­sion. Civil­ian vi­o­la­tors can face a mil­i­tary trial, have their fi­nan­cial as­sets seized and be im­pris­oned.

U.S. Am­bas­sador to Thai­land Glyn Davies met For­eign Min­is­ter Don Pra­mud­winai to hear Bangkok’s con­cern over the U.S. State De­part­ment’s crit­i­cism against the regime’s on­line crack­down of the Face­book 8 and oth­ers.

“We are trou­bled by the re­cent ar­rests of in­di­vid­u­als in con­nec­tion with on­line post­ings,” State De­part­ment spokes­woman for East Asia and the Pa­cific Katina Adams said on May 11. “The ar­rest and ha­rass­ment of ac­tivists and their fam­ily mem­bers raise se­ri­ous con­cerns about Thai­land’s ad­her­ence to its in­ter­na­tional obli­ga­tion to pro­tect free­dom of ex­pres­sion.”

The U.N. Hu­man Rights Coun­cil’s Univer­sal Pe­ri­odic Re­view heard sev­eral coun­tries crit­i­cize Thai­land in Geneva for op­pos­ing free speech and com­mit­ting other vi­o­la­tions.

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