Thai crackdown prompts dissenters to limit presence online
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.