Thailand’s youth asked to cyber-spy for the state

Politics
Thailand
Human Rights
Internet
Thai students

Thai students are being encouraged to monitor the internet. Sergey under a Creative Commons Licence

Thailand’s military junta, formally called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has expanded its control of the country’s media and increased online censorship since coming to power in May, according to human rights organizations.

In May, the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted by the military under the pretext of bringing order to the protest-besieged country. Since the coup, hundreds of activists, journalists, politicians and academics have been arrested and many have been given lengthy prison sentences. A three-month martial law is still in place and there have been accusations of the torture of politicians and activists.

As well as cracking down on traditional forms of speech, the military junta has also moved to shut down websites, purge social media of criticism and censor online comment. Such actions include the sentencing of a 28-year-old musician to 15 years in prison for posting anti-monarchist comments on Facebook earlier this month.

‘Thailand’s military junta first put a chokehold on TV, radio, newspapers and then the Internet,’ said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. ‘Since the military coup, the authorities have clamped down on any speech they find objectionable, including what they deem is critical of the monarchy.’

Don’t insult the King!

In Thailand making comments critical of the monarchy is a criminal offence, called lèse-majesté. Article 112 of the penal code states: ‘whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of 3 to 15 years.’

Several hundred websites have been blocked, including the website of Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper for posting a video about the prince

Convictions under the lèse-majesté law have occurred in Thailand for almost a century, due to the prominent position of the monarchy; however, critics of the regime say that it is now increasingly being politicized to target those critical of the military government.

Michael Montesano, a political researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore stated: ‘[this] appears to reflect a conviction among hardline elements behind the coup that Thais perceived as enemies of the monarchy must be crushed.’

He added that these ‘enemies’ include those loyal to the ousted government and to the government of Thaksin Shinawatra that was overthrown by the military in 2006 – both are said to have wanted to reform the monarchy. Another ‘enemy’ are the so-called ‘Red Shirts’, supporters of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship who continue to protest against the junta.

‘The exploitation of the monarchy has characterized the strategy of the Thai army in maintaining its role in politics. Since the Cold War, the military has been able to use the royal institution to guarantee its power position. So long as the monarchy is being viewed as under threat, this will give legitimacy to the military to intervene in politics and undermine its political enemies,’ explained Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scholar and professor at Kyoto University, in an interview with Al-Jazeera in July.

He continued: ‘the important part of it is to create, recreate the faces of enemies. Anyone disagreeing with the coup now could be perceived as anti-monarchist, thus being an enemy of the Thai state.’

Computer crimes

As well as lèse-majesté, the military junta also uses the Computer Crimes Act (CCA) of 2007 to arrest and imprison critics of the regime. The vague wording of this law gives the junta carte blanche to define what is illegal. Article 14 prohibits the ‘input, into a computer system, false computer data in a manner likely to cause injury to national security or public panic’.

After coming to power, the military junta announced that it would ‘ask for the co-operation’ of Thailand’s ISPs (internet service providers) to block websites deemed politically offensive. Several hundred websites have been blocked, including the website of Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper for posting a video about the prince, and many now require users to input their personal details before accessing the site.

‘Students and other young people are encouraged to join a volunteer force to monitor the internet, especially social media, for content that could be deemed insulting to the monarchy’

An edict announced in July, ‘Announcement No.97’, banned social-media users from distributing opinions that could ‘create conflicts, distort facts, confuse society or lead to violence’. It also warned Facebook users that even ‘liking’ a post by another user that violates this edict is a criminal offence.

The exact number of people arrested for online offences is unknown. However, according to Internet Dialogue on Law Reform (i-Law), an organization that documents freedom of speech violations in Thailand, as of 21 August there had been 257 arrests for offensive comments. The organization estimated as many as 30 per cent of these cases were due to comments made on the internet.

This increased effort for online censorship is no doubt a reaction to the growing number of internet users in Thailand. In 2010 there were 2.3 million users. By 2014 this had increased to 20 million, or 29.7 per cent of the population.

In an effort to monitor the internet, the junta has created units of civil servants and police officials who screen online content. It has also emerged that the junta is planning to revive a 2010 programme in which ‘students and other young people are encouraged to join a volunteer force to monitor the internet, especially social media, for content that could be deemed insulting to the monarchy [or the government],’ Saksith Saiyasombut, a Thai blogger and political commentator, reveals.

‘This could mean Thailand’s youth are utilized in state-sponsored, reactionary cyber vigilantism,’ he adds. Under the previous programme, children were paid as much as $15 for denouncing anti-monarchist or anti-establishment comments. To date, it is unclear when the junta will roll out this programme, although the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology released a statement on 6 August announcing that preparation is under way in 200 schools for students and teachers to ‘monitor all kinds of dangerous information online’.

International responses to the censorship and allegations of torture have so far been confined to words. On 19 August the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights announced he was ‘seriously concerned about the persecution and harsh sentencing’ of individuals in Thailand. The UN has also condemned Thailand’s lèse-majesté law for failing to adhere to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand has ratified.

Similarly, on a recent visit to Southeast Asia US Secretary of State John Kerry said he was ‘disappointed’ and ‘concerned’ about what was happening in Thailand. He added that such actions have had ‘negative implications for the US–Thai relationship’. Yet there have been no US sanctions, and it is business as usual.

On 25 August General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief who orchestrated the coup and led the junta, was officially named Prime Minister. This decision was almost guaranteed, as Thailand’s Assembly is said to be handpicked by the military junta and Chan-ocha was the only candidate.

He has stated that the goal is to have democratic elections as soon as possible, although no date has been set and it remains unclear whether certain political parties will be banned from taking part. Until then, the junta that claims to have taken power to ‘return happiness to the people’ looks set to continue censoring freedom of speech and arresting those who post ‘offensive’ comments on Facebook.

David Nathan is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He reports on political and social issues in Southeast Asia. Previously, he worked out of Nicaragua and Costa Rica.