Thailand’s Junta Flexes Its Muscles Online
Thailand’s military took over the country in a coup d'état last month. As part of its seizure of the apparatus of government, it has also taken steps to extend its control over the country’s Internet users. The army immediately “asked for the cooperation” of Thai ISPs to block over 200 new web sites, including independent sites such as Prachatai, and, briefly, Facebook. Global Voices author Aim Sinpeng describes the situation in Thailand as an “information war,” adding that the push for censorship is driven by the newly-formed National Peace and Order Maintaining Council’s fear that “non-censored information flows could pose further challenges to the military rule and the state on the whole.” ISPs and government officials in the country are already talking about re-engineering the country’s infrastructure to create a single government-controlled gateway to better allow pervasive site censorship and surveillance. The Thai police have reiterated that even “liking” an online message critical of the junta is a crime.
Offline criticism of growing Internet interference is being silenced too. Thai advocates for an open Internet and prominent bloggers have been included in the coup’s regular round-ups of academics, journalists, and politicians. Individuals have been held without charge at army camps, and threatened with further punishment if they criticize or challenge the regime. Among the summoned speakers have been Internet law expert Sawatree Suksri of Thammasat University, who was released over the weekend, and online activist Sombat Boonngamanong, whom the authorities claim was tracked down and located by his IP address prior to his arrest.
The ease with which the military has been able to pressure ISPs to submit to their controls and intimidate the Thai population has come from years of escalating online interference imposed by both military-supported administrations and the recent elected government the coup effectively deposed. The last military coup Thailand suffered was in 2006, when the Internet was on the cusp of popular adoption in the country. While some—mostly pornographic—sites had previously been blocked by ISPs, the country’s undemocratic leaders quickly ramped up the level of political censorship online. One of the first pieces of legislation passed in the subsequent, unelected, administration was the Computer Crime Act, a broad law that create heavy penalties for vague “cyber-crimes”, and placed criminal liability on any intermediary who allowed unlawful content to be distributed—including comments critical of the king, or lèse-majesté, a crime frequently used to suppress political critiques by all sides of Thai’s political spectrum.
The last elected Thai government, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, was little better, increasing funding for the online policing of lèse-majesté, overseeing officials who threatened to close down sites critical of Yingluck, criminalizing Facebook “likes” and social media sharing, and announcing their intention to monitor private communications on Line, a Japanese instant-messaging service popular in Thailand. Many proposals that were mooted during the civilian administration are now being enforced by the same officials under military rule.
Thailand’s oscillations between democracy and military rule are bad for its economy and politics, but they are proving fatal to its Internet freedoms. Without a period of reform and free criticism, the country risks escalating its suppression of online speech until it becomes impossible for democracy and stability to flourish, under martial law or not.