censorship

Despite denials, Thailand's online surveillance plans are alive and well

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 22, 2015 "We will not talk about this any more. If we say we won't do it, we won't do it," said Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak at an economic forum in Bangkok last week. His decisive words were in response to the ongoing controversy over the Thai military government’s plans to introduce an online single gateway.

Last month, Thai internet users discovered a cabinet resolution surveying the implementation of a single online gateway ”to be used as a device to control inappropriate websites and flow of news and information from overseas through the internet system.” Subsequent resolutions ordered the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) and related agencies to speed up their preliminary work.

If realized, Thailand’s internet traffic would be bottlenecked through a single gateway, making it possible for officials to filter and block undesirable content. This is in line with the military junta’s ongoing efforts to monitor and censor dissenting voices, both in real life and online, ever since it launched a military coup in May 2014.

Amidst widespread criticism and a coordinated mass-click-and-refresh bombardment that briefly knocked several government websites offline, Thai officials were scrambling to calm public opinion, only then to contradict themselves justifying why the junta wants to have a single gateway in the first place. The explanations varied from economic reasons, cybersecurity concerns and ultimately ending at Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha being initially ”worried” about the ”youth addiction to online games and access to inappropriate media”.

A week later, the government was hoping that the debate had died down. However, despite repeated statements insisting that it won’t pursue the single gateway plan anymore, not everyone is convinced by their declaration. And it seems there is more trouble coming the junta’s way:

Online activists have announced they will launch attacks against the government beginning Thursday after the prime minister said the project to route all internet traffic through a single point of control is still alive.

The coalition of anonymous internet users known as Citizens Against Single Gateway last night warned private sector operations with IT systems linked to government servers to transfer them to safe places before the assault on government systems begins at 10am on Thursday.

Those behind a crippling attack earlier this month, the Thailand F5 Cyber Army, issued the announcement yesterday after Prime Minister and junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha said agencies are still studying the project (…).

First Chapter of ‘Cyber War’ to Begin Thursday”, Khaosod English, October 21, 2015

The little detail that the government is "still studying" the single gateway plan is enough reason for opponents to distrust the Thai military government. But there are several more signs that justifies the continuous skepticism by many online users.

CAT TELECOM has announced that it will proceed with the plan to build a national Internet gateway, which it claims would help make Thailand a digital hub in Asean.

The aim of the project is not to control the flow of information into the country over the Internet as some fear, said CAT acting chief executive officer Colonel Sanpachai Huvanandana. He said a working committee for the project would be set up. Whether that committee is under the Information and Communications Technology Ministry or under the Digital Economy Committee is up to the ICT minister.

The national Internet gateway is one of two priorities for making Thailand a digital hub for the region by expanding capacity and reducing costs. The other is to have large content providers such as Facebook, Google and YouTube establish servers in Thailand.

Net gateway for digital hub”, The Nation, October 21, 2015

The other part of the plan to have internet tech giants like Google and Facebook setting up shop in Thailand (the latter already did) seems ambitious to say the least, given a potentially significant infrastructural disadvantage and previous persistent, but unsuccessful attempts by the military government seeking cooperation of these companies to censor posts deemed insulting to the monarchy and also identify their authors.

At the same time it is being reported that General Thaweep Netrniyom, the secretary-general of the Office of the National Security Council (NSC), could be appointed the head of the aforementioned CAT Telecom. It would be the first time that somebody from the NSC would take up that position at the state-owned telecommunication company and unsurprisingly his focus is expected be on cyber security - just as CAT’s current CEO (a Colonel nonetheless) announced they are still not giving up on the single online gateway.

However, as mentioned before, that is not the only measure by the military junta to control the flow of online information in Thailand. It already has blocked more than 200 websites deemed a threat to national security (source), ordered internet providers to censor on sight, reportedly also procured software to intercept encrypted SSL-connections and additional hacking and surveillance software, it is also in process of passing its so-called cyber laws, a set of bills aimed officially at “preparing Thailand for the digital economy”. But it also includes passages that enables widespread online surveillanceprosecution against intermediaries (e.g. website owners) and more legal uncertaintybenefitting the state more than Thai online users.

Most recently, Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan announced on Tuesday the creation of a new ”Army Cyber Center” specifically to ”protect” the Thai monarchy and to ”keep track of information on media and social media and to sort them out systematically,” essentially underlining their priorities. In August this year, two people were sentenced to a record 28 and 30 years in prison respectively for allegedly posting Facebook messages deemed insulting to the monarchy.

Thai military courts hand down record prison sentences for insulting monarchy

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 7, 2015 Thailand's military courts have issued record prison sentences - 30 years and 28 years - against suspects for allegedly defaming the country's monarchy on Facebook. Two separate verdicts have found the accused guilty of posting content on Facebook that is deemed a violation of the country's infamously draconian lèse majesté law, also known as Article 112 of the Criminal Code, that states “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”

The first sentence was delivered Friday morning in the Thai capital Bangkok:

On Friday morning, 7 August 2015, the Military Court of Bangkok sentenced Pongsak S., a suspect of offences under Article 112 or the lese majeste law and Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act (importing of illegal content into a computer system), to 60 years imprisonment.

The court gave 10 years prison term to each of the six lese majeste counts he was charged with. Since the suspect pleaded guilty as charged, the court, however, halved the sentence to 30 years in jail.

Pongsak used Facebook under the name “Sam Parr” to distribute messages and images defaming the monarchy, which he copied from other sources. At the press conference in January 2015, he pleaded guilty to all charges and said he did so because he was instigated by some Facebook friends. He also said that he went to anti-establishment red-shirt demonstrations.

He told Prachatai that he was tricked into meeting a decoy who had been talking to him via facebook under name ‘Numbannok Rak Seri’ (a free country boy) in the northern province of Tak and was arrested on 30 December 2014 at the bus transit in Phitsanulok Province.

“It turned out when I met the guy at the military base later that he was an officer out of uniform,” said Phongsak.

"Military court sets new record on lese majeste sentence; man gets 30 years behind bars", Prachatai English, August 7, 2015

Hours later on the same day, another military court in the northern city of Chiang Mai sentenced a woman to prison:

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), the military court of the northern province of Chiang Mai on Friday afternoon, 7 August 2015, sentenced Sasiwimol (surname withheld due to privacy concerns), a 29-year-old employee of a hotel in the province, to 56 years in jail for allegedly posting six lese majeste messages under the Facebook identity ‘Rungnapha Kampichai’.

The military court gave 8 years jail term to each of the 7 lese majeste counts of the suspect. However, since the defendant pleaded guilty as charged, the court halved the jail term to 28 years.

At the deposition hearing in June 2015, the defendant denied all allegations. However, during the plaintiff’s examination hearing today, 7 August 2015, she retracted her pretrial statements and pleaded guilty.

Prior to the ruling, Sasiwimol submitted a letter to the court, requesting the judges to reduce the jail sentence because she has never committed any crime and is a mother of two daughters aged seven and five. The military court judges dismissed the request and reasoned that the jail sentence is already light since case is severe because it is related to the revered Thai monarchy and gravely affected public sentiment of Thai people.

"Northern military court sends mother of two to 28 years in prison under lese majeste", Prachatai English, August 7, 2015

Both cases have set an unprecedented record for long prison sentences, since the court issued the punishment per offense that was deemed not only a violation of the lèse majesté law, but also to the Computer Crimes Act. In other words, the accused were punished twice for allegedly violating two vaguely worded laws and also accumulated a long prison term because the courts counted each Facebook post as separate offense. Both defendants have pleaded guilty not only to halve their sentences (the fact that they were still unprecedentedly long is telling) but also to keep the possibility of a royal pardon open.

Lèse majesté-related complaints have sky-rocketed in the past decade (regardless of who was in power) thanks to self-proclaimed ultra-nationalist vigilantes as more verdicts have shown increasingly looser interpretations of the law, rendering a reasonable debate or even a possible amendment of the law impossible. To make matters worse, ever since Thailand's military - which sees itself as the defender of the Thai monarchy - took power in the coup of May 22, 2014, it has transferred jurisdiction of lèse majesté cases to military courts. Unsurprisingly, the number of cases have piled up under the  junta.

The Thai military government is fighting against lèse majesté suspects at multiple fronts: evidently, social media is under increased surveillance and Facebook itself reported a sharp increase of blocked content in the second half of 2014, while it also states that Thai authorities have requested information of certain Facebook users three times.

Furthermore, the junta is hunting a number activists charged with lèse majesté that have fled abroad, often resulting in diplomatic spats, and other repeated requests to countries that have granted asylum to the prosecuted suspects.

No laughing matter: Thai junta leader's renewed threat to media

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 26, 2015 Thai junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha this week warned that he has power to 'execute' critical reporters. Maybe this time he wasn't joking, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

THE allegations against the four men are severe: they are accused of being in connection to an alleged ”terrorism network” plotting to launch bomb attacks in Bangkok. A blast on March 7 at the Criminal Court (where no one was injured) is being pinned on them. They were held in military barracks for almost a week without charges, in accordance with martial law that is still in force since the military coup almost a year ago.

During the detention these four men were also allegedly tortured into making false confessions, according to human rights lawyers. One suspect said he was punched, kicked and even electrocuted ”30-40 times” by soldiers during interrogations.

Unsurprisingly, the Thai military disputes these allegations as a ”distortion of facts” and army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr has threatened legal action after the accusations.

That is in essence an example of how Thailand’s military junta deals with accusations and criticism leveled against them: denial and rejection - so far, so common. But that also comes with a heavy dose of self-righteous zeal to claim the ultimate sovereignty over what they constitute as the truth.

And no one defends this "truth" more vigorously than Gen. Udomdej’s army chief predecessor: General Prayuth Chan-ocha, current military junta leader and also prime minister.

Even the most casual Thai political observer is aware of Gen. Prayuth’s frequent contentious exchanges, especially with the press, in which he is at best sardonic and at worst goes on a tirades mostly ending with threats - and coming from a military man in charge of a government with wide-reaching powers, and with no one seemingly stopping him, this makes it very problematic, to say the least.

Case in point, from earlier this week:

"Our country has seen so much trouble because we have had too much democracy, unlike other countries where the government has more power to restrict freedoms," Gen. Prayuth (…) told investors and businessmen at a conference in Bangkok today. "Even the media can’t criticize [those leaders], like they do here. I insist that today, we are 99 percent democratic, because I didn't overthrow democracy at all."

Gen. Prayuth continued, "I can’t even stop people from opposing me at this moment. If I genuinely had complete power, I would have imprisoned [critics] or handed them to a firing squad. It would be over, I wouldn't have to wake up at night like this. Today there are some people who love me, but there are also many people who hate me. But please know that I am not doing this for myself. I am here to work for the country."

Junta Leader Blames Thai Crisis on 'Too Much Democracy’”, Khaosod English, March 23, 2015

It gets even worse later this week, when Gen. Prayuth had yet another episode in which he scolded reporters for a particularly (from his perspective) annoying question that quickly escalated into a rant accusing everyone not thankful enough for the "freedoms" he permits to criticize him and the junta. But then it deteriorated even more after reporters asked what would happened to media outlets stepping out of line, to which he said this:

"We'll probably just execute them," said Prayuth, without a trace of a smile, when asked by reporters how the government would deal with those that do not adhere to the official line.

"You don't have to support the government, but you should report the truth," the former army chief said, telling reporters to write in a way that bolsters national reconciliation in the kingdom.

Thai PM Prayuth warns media, says has power to execute reporters”, Reuters, March 25, 2015

He went on to target specific outlets like Matichon by literally pointing at copies of their newspapers and lambasting their coverage (which you can read here in a transcript of the whole tirade by Khaosod English that is - for a lack of a better word - just amazingly mind-boggling).

If there’s still any doubt about what kind of man and what kind of mentality we are dealing with here, then there’s your answer! This is a man ruling a regime under which dissent is outlawed and the media is under constant surveillance.

In an ironically tone-deaf incident, earlier on the same day, Gen. Prayuth he blasted Channel 3 journalist Thapanee Ietsrichai for her investigative report into the inhumane slave-like conditions on Thai fishing boats (coinciding with a similar investigation by the Associated Press following similar reports by The Guardian and Global Post in recent years) for the damaging the country’s reputation and summoned to explain herself to the authorities.

As amusing (and admittedly cathartic) as it is to laugh and ridicule the general’s verbal outbursts and this junta’s ineptitude to deal with criticism (as we have extensively chronicled it), it’s no laughing matter and perhaps we should stop treating it as such.

Maybe we should stop portraying Prayuth’s outbursts as amusing one-note anecdotes about somebody’s public anger issues, but rather as the dangerously misguided delusions of somebody who knows no other way to exert power than by abusive force - and more worryingly, is in a situation and position powerful enough to actually do it.

Gen. Prayuth’s mere mention of considering the use of execution against critical journalists - twice, no less! - crosses yet another line after so many other lines have been already crossed. Maybe it is time for others to take Thailand’s plight under the military junta more seriously.

ThaiMiniCult's newest puritan crusade targets underboob selfies

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 19, 2015 The "appropriate" display of female breasts, according to an actual banner on the Thai Ministry of Culture in 2010.

Thailand's overzealous cultural watchdogs made international headlines again this week, and as usual for entirely the wrong reasons. This time, they have targeted yet another apparent online phenomenon:

Thailand's military government warned women on Monday against posting 'selfie' photos of the lower half of their breasts - a social media trend that has gone viral - saying their actions could violate the country's computer crime laws.

Thailand's 2007 Computer Crimes Act bans any material that causes "damage to the country's security or causes public panic" or "any obscene computer data which is accessible to the public".

The culture ministry said offenders faced up to five years in jail, but did not say how they would identify the culprits.

"When people take these 'underboob selfies' no one can see their faces," ministry spokesman Anandha Chouchoti told Reuters. "So it's like, we don't know who these belong to, and it encourages others to do the same.

"We can only warn people to not take it up. They are inappropriate actions."

"Thais warned against taking 'underboss selfies'", Reuters, March 16, 2015

Yes, (regular readers know what's coming next) the self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything "Thainess" we usually call ThaiMiniCult are once again setting out on their puritan crusade again to safeguard sanctimonious sanctity of what's appropriate and what's not.

And even though there's no concrete evidence that the "underboob" selfies have gotten ahold in the Thai online community, as Yupa Taweewattanakijbaworn admitted to Thai Rath, the director of the ThaiMiniCult's Culture Surveillance Center nevertheless insisted almost step-motherly that, "Thai culture [as a whole] doesn't approve public display of scantily clothed [people] anyways."

Predictably, this (non-)incident was picked up by the international media rather quickly (and due to the fact that an international news agency like Reuters actually wrote about it), further making a mockery of the ruling authoritarian military junta, which has already a tough time to promote itself and its "values" - let alone to foreigners. However, this open vigor by the ThaiMiniCult is not a new occurrence and popped up even before the current military government.

As previously with Buddhist tattoos on foreign skins, mediocre foreign TV-sketches, and whatever that short-lived 'planking'-meme was, Thai authorities - and especially their colleagues at the Ministry of Culture - always see the need to combat these with a threat to use the law to their fullest possible punishment. It doesn't make it any better when the law they are citing to clamp down possible offenders with - when these acts of perceived cultural indecencies are made online (and, much to the apparent annoyance of the Thai authorities, anonymously) - is the Computer Crimes Act, which we've lambasted in its current and very likely future form.

Also, long-time Siam Voices readers will have noticed by now, most episodes of ThaiMiniCult's outrage involve the public display of female breasts one way or the other. The most infamous case goes back as far as 2011 when the then-Culture Minister called for a public witch hunt after an online video emerged showing women dancing topless in the streets during the Songkran new year holidays - only then to find out the women were underaged.

Back then, author and Siam Voices contributor "Kaewmala" said in an interview with this author that Thai society "needs to get real" with sexuality and stop hiding behind a "taboo only when it’s inconvenient or causes embarrassment." In a later article on this blog, she said that the Thai cultural heralds have pathological "mammophobia". The underlying theme of sexual hypocrisy in Thailand was also picked up by Siam Voices contributor Thitipol Panyalimpanun, who recently wrote that "Thailand put itself into this struggle by positioning itself as noble society."

It is this holier-than-thou-attitude by the self-proclaimed Thai cultural heralds that leaves easily mockable, mostly because of their overzealousness in protecting whatever their one solid vision of "Thainess" entails, but also their argumentative inconsistency. In an online post that mercilessly mocks this brouhaha, while the ThaiMiniCult has an apparent problem with "underboob" selfies, it hasn't gawked at Thai magazine and newspaper covers featuring otherwise barely covered female breasts - and never mind that infamous banner (see above) the ThaiMiniCult itself had on their website in 2011...

Thailand’s new cyber laws – Part 5: Admin error

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 26, 2015

In the last part of our Siam Voices series examining the new cyber laws, we chronicle the criticism against and the defense for the controversial bills - and what’s behind the military junta’s motivation to push these into law.

In the past two weeks we have analyzed the cyber law bills for its potential impact on policies, censorship and also business. More often than not we found that the flaws outweigh the benefits and, if signed into law without large-scale amendments will have very serious implications of the civil liberties, free speech, personal privacy and even e-commerce of every Thai internet user - except for those in charge of the law.

So it is no wonder why there has been a significant amount of criticism against the cyber bills. Here’s just a small selection:

"Proposed cyber-security legislation in Thailand represents a clear and present danger to media freedoms," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "If Prime Minister Prayuth is sincere about returning the country to democracy, he should see that Parliament scraps this bill, which is reminiscent of a police state, and instead enact laws that uphold online freedoms."

Cyber security bill threatens media freedom in Thailand”,  Committee to Protect Journalists, January 20, 2015

"The consumers will feel that they are being watched when they go online,” said Arthit Suriyawongkul, an expert on cyber and computer law from the Thai Netizen Network. (…)

“They'll feel unsure about sharing their private information fearing that officials could abuse their privacy,” Mr Arthit said. “If consumers are not confident then online businesses will suffer."

"Fears over Thailand's online freedom, as junta drives towards digital economy”, Channel NewsAsia, January 29, 2015

Six civil organizations [Thai Netizen NetworkFTA WatchFoundation for Community Education Media (FCEM)Green World FoundationPeople’s Media Development Institute, and Thailand Association for the Blind (TAB)] denounced the eight Digital Economy bills recently approved by the junta, saying they are national security bills in disguise and that the bill will pave the way for a state monopoly of the telecommunication business.

"Thai junta’s Digital Economy bills are national security bills in disguise: rights groups”, Prachatai English, January 14, 2015

Also, almost 22,000 people have signed an online-petition against the bills, calling for them to be stopped.

At the moment the right cyber bills are in the military junta’s all-appointed ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) - dominated by active and former military officers - and are awaiting deliberation. It is not expected that the rubber-stamping body will be making any fundamental changes to the drafts.

Nevertheless, the military government’s response to the criticism is - like with any other criticism out there - aggravated and irritated. Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha responded in his usual style:

“We will develop software for goods and services. If there is private [online] content, no one would mess with it. But if [some people] commit crimes [such as lèse majesté], we have to investigate the matter. The accusation that the government is not taking care of Article 112 [of the Criminal Code, known as the lèse majesté law] is because those lèse majesté websites operate from overseas.

"Junta leader admits controversial digital economy bills target lèse majesté”, Prachatai English, January 22, 2015

And when pressed by another reporter…

"Today, have I ever restricted anyone's rights? Have I ever done that?" asked Gen. Prayuth, who imposed martial law after leading a military coup on 22 May 2014, and has banned any political protests or public criticism of his regime.

The reporter pressed Gen. Prayuth to justify the sweeping nature of the bill, prompting Gen. Prayuth to lose his temper and shout, "I don't have to answer why! I will pass it. You have a problem with that? Otherwise, why the hell am I the Prime Minister? Why am I the Prime Minister?"

Gen. Prayuth then walked away from the reporters and said angrily, "I'm in a very bad mood."

"Thai Junta Leader Deflects Concern Over Mass Surveillance Bill”, Khaosod English, January 21, 2015

This incident at a small activist symposium shows how much the military government is trying to claim its narrative over the bills:

Also present at the Bangkok symposium was an Army Lieutenant who arrived uninvited with three other soldiers in an armoured Humvee and "asked" to be allowed to defend the draft bills. (…)

Army Lieutenant Kittiphob Tiensiriwong (…) urged the 35-strong crowd to accept the bills, saying that the NLA had good intentions but acknowledging that the bills must have more positive than negative aspects.

When asked to explain, Kittiphob, who did not remove his footwear like the other participants, said there were times when speedy access to the Internet was needed.

He said the bills aimed "to control those who think unlike others - those who have their own mind and are not considering the thinking of the collective."

"Calls to hold cyber bills until democracy is restored”, The Nation, February 2, 2015

While this should come as no surprise to anyone, that right there is actual main motivation of the military junta for the cyber law bills and for the way it was written! Ever since the military coup in last May, one of the key elements of its tight grip is the massive monitoring of the media, including online, to curtail any signs of criticism and dissent.

Even without the cyber laws and thanks to the still ongoing martial law, the military junta has already taken steps for wide-spread online surveillance as we have previously reported, as well as ordering Thai internet service providers to preemptively block websites. Since then, there have been further developments that are in line with the authorities' efforts to scrutinize online traffic: the development of software to intercept secured SSL-connections, mandatory sim-card registrations (in a country that predominantly uses their phones with pre-paid subscriptions) as well as for free wifi and the reported creation of a "cyber warfare" unit by the Thai military.

The desire by Thai authorities to control the flow of information online is not new and was evident in past governments (see hereherehere and here), but under the authoritarian rule of the military junta, it can operate with no checks and balances - and thus also legalize its unprecedented powers to monitor, spy, filter, censor and collect anything online.

The main purpose of an army is to protect the country from external threats, but history has shown that the Thai army has mainly acted against the Thai people. Now with the new online surveillance measures and the cyber law bills, the Thai military and the junta is expanding its fields of operations (or rather battlespace) to the cyberspace - and thus not against an external force, but again against every Thai internet user.

THAILAND'S NEW CYBER LAWS: Part 1: Introduction - Part 2: Changes to Computer Crime Act - Part 3: Far-reaching and all-encompassing cyber security - Part 4: Bad for business, too! - Part 5: Admin error