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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

Thailand’s new cyber laws – Part 4: Bad for business, too!

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 25, 2015

In the fourth part of our series examining Thailand's new and controversial cyber laws, we look at the impact it can have on business - and it doesn't necessarily look very profitable.

In the last couple of instalments of this series, we have highlighted the pitfalls, flaws and loopholes of some of the new proposed cyber laws of the Thai military government. Obviously, since this blog mainly focusses on politics and media freedom, we have so far examined the bills with regards to cyber security, surveillance and its implications on censorship, civil liberties and privacy.

However, for some people and entities these aspects are simply not on the top of their priority list - and we’re not talking about the junta this time! No, this time we mean the economic sector. And it is often said from that direction that an effective, stable political situation is preferable - cynics would argue that democratic values are not economic factors.

The main selling point by the current military junta of the new cyber laws is to lay out the legal groundwork to improve the conditions for Thailand’s ”digital economy” and thus position the country more competitively, especially with the ASEAN Economic Community lurking just around the corner. Another objective is to integrate governance and state business better in to the ”digital economy” as well.

And there are some very good reasons to focus on that: With an internet penetration of 35 per cent (roughly 28.3m people) and an even higher percentage of mobile phone users (125 per cent or 84m people, in fact more than the actual Thai population!), there are a lot of opportunities to be made digitally (source and more stats here).

But when you take a closer look at the eight different cyber law bills, there are many passages that also potentially can spell bad business as well. As usual, the devil is in the details.

Let's start off with the Personal Data Protection bill (full translation available here). As the name of the bill implies, it is initially set up to (supposedly) protect personal data of every Thai online user and for that reason a committee overseeing that would also include representatives of three consumer protection NGOs on board. According to Article 7 of the new bill however, they are now gone and have been replaced by the Secretary of the National Security Council instead.

And it doesn't get any better as we encounter yet another example of a typical problem when it comes to Thai legalese:

The draft bill also imposes significant legal burdens on foreign tech companies as responsibility falls solely on the data controller. Such companies would also run a greater risk of being subject to legal action, said Dhiraphol Suwanprateep, a partner at Baker & McKenzie. (...)

He said the bill posed a challenge for the government's digital economy policy, as there is no clear distinction between "personal data processor" and "personal data controller"The draft only identifies a data controller as the person with the authority to control and manage his or her personal information.

"Data processor" typically refers to a third party that processes personal data on behalf of a data controller, Mr Dhiraphol said. In the absence of such identification in the bill, data processors such as internet service providers, web hosting providers, cloud service providers and content hosting platforms could be broadly interpreted as a data controller. (...)

"If there is no separate definition between data controllers and data processors, it will be difficult to enforce the law, as most technology businesses are dwelling on cloud-based services which are physically located outside the country," Mr Dhiraphol said.

"This will not attract foreign investors into Thailand, as stringent legislation would rather hamper businesses' innovative technology instead of promoting Thailand as a digital economy hub for the Asean Economic Community."

"Legal expert shreds data security bill", Bangkok Post, January 26, 2015

Another passage at Article 25 would affect a lot of different sectors as well:

Section 25: Any collection of personal data pertaining to ethnicity, race, political opinions, doctrinal, religious or philosophical beliefs, sexual behaviour, criminal records, health records, or of any data which may upset another person’s or the people’s feelings as prescribed by the Committee, without the consent of the Data Owner or the person(s) concerned, is prohibited, (...)

Following the words of the law, it would make it very difficult to use somebody's yet-to-be-defined "personal information" for any kind of work without their permission. For example, journalists wouldn't be able to use these sources for any critical investigation or marketing campaigns and wouldn't be able to implement social media posts (unless they write some crafty terms of services that nobody reads anyways).

Another crucial point of contention for many critics is the upcoming allocation of new frequency spectrum that would bring 4G mobile connection to Thailand (and hopefully soon and not as drawn-out as the farcical 3G auction was). However...

It also empowers the [Digital Economy Commission chaired by the Prime Minister] to order any private telecommunications operator to act or refraining from acting in any way and also compels companies to provide information on request as well as hand over executives for questioning.

The portfolio of digital economy laws also has a new frequency act that gives the final say in spectrum allocation to the Digital Economy Commission and emancipates the telecommunications regulator, leaving it in charge only of commercial spectrum and imposing strict budget controls on the former autonomous agency. (...)

But while on the one hand [the government] are signalling compromise with the aforementioned committee, the junta are also threatening that 4G will be delayed unless the laws are passed quickly, and of course everyone loves more bandwidth.

"Thai spying law controversy rages on", Telecomasia.net, February 6, 2015

And generally one of the biggest problems is that the cyber law bills are creating a bureaucratic monster:

Paiboon Amornpinyokait, an expert on cyber and computer law, said (...) they gave too much power to the new Ministry of Digital Economy and Society by allowing it to oversee too many areas.

They include areas currently under the jurisdiction of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) Bill, the Cyber Security Bill, the New Computer Crime Bill, the Personal Data Protection Bill, the Digital Economy Promotion Bill, and the Digital Economy Development Fund Bill.

Paiboon said the bills would result in too much centralised power and will give too much authority to officials or authorities, which could easily lead to abuse of power.

"Digital economy bills 'need to be amended'", The Nation, January 19, 2015

These passages and many other legislative pitfalls that we haven't covered yet show that this is not only a matter of human rights, free speech and personal privacy, but it also could have potentially serious implications for the economy and scare away potential foreign investors.

Just as the military junta tries to fix the economy and could be doing more harm than good, these batch of cyber bills could have the same effect as well if they're not being thoroughly amended or rejected by the junta's ersatz-parliament. As we explain in the next and last past of our series, there is definitely not a lack of criticism from all sides but a severe lack of justification from Thailand's military junta.

Translated sections of draft bills by Thai Netizen Network. You can read complete translations here.

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

Thailand's junta extends censorship with mass online surveillance

Originally published on Siam Voices on September 19, 2014 Thailand's ruling military junta is further tightening its grip on the public discourse by heightening its censorship measures, going as far as reportedly implementing widespread surveillance of Thai Internet users. The new measure seeks to crush criticism at the military government and  to crack down on anything that is deemed insulting to the royal institution - also known as lèse majesté.

When the Thai military declared martial law two days before it launched the coup of May 22, 2014, one of the main targets was the complete control of the broadcast media, which resulted in the presence of soldiers at all major television channels and the shutdown of thousands of unlicensed community radio stations and over a dozen politically partisan satellite TV channels, primarily those belonging to the warring street protest groups.

Nearly five months later, most of these satellite TV channels (with one notable exception) are back on the air but have been renamed and had to considerably toned down their political leanings before they were allowed to broadcast again. The TV hosts who were last year's heavy-hitting political TV commentators are now hosting entertainment programs or, if they're lucky, return to a talk show format, but only in the name of national "reform" and "reconciliation".

But the military junta, also formally known as the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), still has a firm grip on the media, as it has set up specific monitor watchdogs for different media platforms (and also specifically for foreign news outlets) to screen out critical content against the NCPO. Furthermore, it has practically issued a gag order to the Thai media - only then to reiterate that while criticism against the military junta is allowed,  it should only be done "in good faith".

The censorship measures and the monitoring efforts also extend online. Unlike during the last military coup in 2006, the emergence of social media networks makes it a daunting uphill battle for the junta to control the narrative. Nevertheless, the authorities have always been eager to have more control to filter and censor online content and have blatantly resorted to phishing for user information, and even considered launching its own national social network. And there was this:

In late May, a brief block of the social network Facebook sparked uproar online, while statements by the Ministry for Information and Telecommunication Technology (MICT) and the NCPO over whether or not the Facebook-block was ordered or it was an “technical glitch” contradicted each other. It emerged later through a the foreign parent company of a Thai telco company that there actually was an order to block Facebook, for which it got scolded by the Thai authorities.

"Thailand’s junta sets up media watchdogs to monitor anti-coup dissent", Siam Voices/Asian Correspondent, June 26, 2014

The junta also reactivated its "Cyber Scout"-initiative, recruiting school children and students to monitor online content for dissidents, and announced plans for internet cafes to install cameras so that parents can remotely monitor what their kids are doing.

The towering motive of the junta's online monitoring efforts has been recently laid out by outgoing army chief, junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha:

Gen. Prayuth outlined a strategy to "defend" the monarchy in a speech (...) [its] transcript describes the monarchy as an important element of Thai-style democracy and an institution that the Royal Thai Government is obliged to uphold "with loyalty and defense of His Majestic Authority."

"We will use legal measures, social-psychological measures, and telecommunications and information technology to deal with those who are not mindful of their words, are arrogant at heart, or harbour ill intentions to undermine the important Institution of the nation," the speech reads.

Under Section 112 of Thailand's Criminal Codes, insulting the royal family is a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The law, known as lese majeste, has been harshly enforced since the military staged a coup against the elected government on 22 May. (...)

"Prayuth Vows Tougher Crackdown On Anti-Monarchists", Khaosod English, September 11, 2014

And in order to achieve this, the junta reportedly doubled down its online monitoring earlier this week:

Thai authorities reportedly planned to implement a surveillance device starting from 15 September to sniff out Thai Internet users, specifically targeting those producing and reading lèse majesté content, a report says. Although the report is yet to be confirmed, it has created greater climate of fear among media.

Prachatai has received unconfirmed reports from two different sources. One said the device targets keywords related to lèse majesté and that it is relatively powerful and could access all kinds of communication traffic on the internet. Another source said it could even monitor communications using secured protocols.

After learning about this, a national level Thai-language newspaper editorial team has reluctantly resorted to a policy of greater self-censorship. Its editor warned editorial staff not to browse any lèse majesté website at work and think twice before reporting any story related to lèse majesté.

"Thai authorities reportedly to conduct mass surveillance of Thai internet users, targeting lèse majesté", Prachatai English, September 10, 2014

On Wednesday, it was reported that amidst severe internet slowdowns across Southeast Asia due to a damaged undersea connection cable extra internet filtering in Thailand has been activated.

There is no doubt that Thailand's military junta is determined to go forward with its own, very exclusive way of governing and tightly controlling the narrative through widespread media censorship and massive online surveillance. By invoking the need to "protect the monarchy", the military has a convenient weapon to act against dissidents in real life and in the virtual domain as well, no matter where they are.

According to the legal watchdog NGO iLaw, over 270 people have been detained by the junta between May 22 and September 5. Eighty-six of them are facing trial, most of them before a military court. Fifteen of those are cases concerning lèse majesté.

Thailand's junta sets up media watchdogs to monitor anti-coup dissent

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 26, 2014 Thailand's military junta has set up watchdogs to monitor all kinds of media for content that is deemed as "inciting hatred towards the monarchy" or providing "misinformation" that could potentially complicate the work of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta calls itself.

The committee is chaired by Pol Gen Adul Saengsingkaew, deputy NCPO chief for special affairs.  Its members comprise representatives of agencies including the Royal Thai Police Office, army, navy, air force, Foreign Ministry, Prime Minister's Office and Public Relations Department.

The meeting agreed to set up four panels to "monitor" the media:

  • A panel to follow news on radio and television stations, led by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC);
  • A panel to monitor news in the print media, led by the Special Branch;
  • A panel to monitor news on the social media, headed by the permanent secretary for information and communication technology; and
  • A panel to monitor international news, led by the permanent secretary for foreign affairs.

Upon finding news items deemed detrimental to the NCPO and the royal institution, they are to send a daily and weekly report to Pol Gen Adul and the NCPO chief [army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha].

"Media censorship panels formed", Bangkok Post, June 25, 2014

"All agencies have a duty to the people and the various media to make them understand the work of the NCPO, while at the same time to clamp down on the spread of 'information' that could incite hatred towards the monarchy and also on misinformation," Pol Gen Adul was quoted as saying by the Isara News Agency.

The set up of the panels and the large-scale cooperation between the military, government sectors and "independent" federal agencies is another sign of attempts to tighten the control over the narrative in the news and social media, which have been repeatedly warned by the junta not to broadcast content that "could negatively affect the peace-keeping work of the authorities". There has been no clarification on what this would entail, exactly.

During the military coup of May 22, 2014 all TV stations were only broadcasting announcements by the military and several satellite TV stations (mostly associated with the political protest groups) were ordered to cease broadcasting and have remained off air since. Others, including foreign news channels, were gradually allowed back on air under the condition that they do not air shows debating the political situation.

The junta has also been trying to combat dissent online, especially on social media. Efforts are made (with the cooperation of Thai internet service providers) to block access to anti-coup and anti-monarchy content. Reportedly, at least 200 websites have been blocked and social media users have been warned not to spread "wrongful” information that may “incite unrest".

Authorities have suggested creating a national online gateway in order to filter out undesirable website and are even considering a national social network that they're in full control off. The junta has also reportedly resorted to gathering user information via phishing, fooling the unsuspecting user into installing an app on their social network.

In late May, a brief block of the social network Facebook sparked uproar online, while statements by the Ministry for Information and Telecommunication Technology (MICT) and the NCPO over whether or not the Facebook-block was ordered or it was an "technical glitch" contradicted each other. It emerged later through a the foreign parent company of a Thai telco company that there actually was an order to block Facebook, for which it got scolded by the Thai authorities.

The special emphasis by the junta on alleged anti-monarchy content is highlighted by the fact that since the military coup all cases that fall under the draconian lèse majesté law are now under the jurisdiction of a military court.

Manop Thiposot, a spokesman for the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), voiced his concern over the establishment of the junta's media monitoring bodies. "Without clear guidelines it could negatively affect the public's right to information and severely restrict the work of the media," Manop said in an interview with the newspaper Krungthep Turakij. He called on the NCPO to clarify their working process and make it transparent.

Manop also reports that military officers have entered the newsroom of an unnamed newspaper and ordered reporters not to report about the newly established anti-coup movement in exile (founded by former politicians associated of the toppled government), while at the same time the junta publicly claims to be "unfazed" by it.

The junta is making it again clear that it will not tolerate dissent and criticism, all in the name of "avoiding misunderstanding" as it puts it. It aims to control of the post-coup narrative, but will struggle to get a handle on the multiple ways people are getting their information and communicating with each other, as well as the diversity of opinions those media outlets have spawned.

Lèse majesté vigilantism and Thailand's political crisis

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 23, 2014 UPDATE (April 23): The head of the newly created radical royalist cyber-vigilante group has filed a lèse majesté charge against Ms. "Rose" himself. In separate story on Wednesday, Kamol Duangphasuk, better known among the red shirts as a poet under his pen name "Maineung K. Kunthee" has been shot dead by unknown assailants. "Maineung" was also known to be an anti-lèse majesté activist.

ORIGINAL STORY (April 22)

As Thailand's political crisis lingers on, the country's draconian lèse majesté law is still being applied, as two related cases show. Moreover, a new online vigilante group is making sure it stays that way.

The words Wutthipong Kotchathammakhun spoke into the camera were as straightforward as they were blunt. The man more commonly known as red shirt activist and radio talk-show host "Ko Tee" has always been more outspoken than the mainstream umbrella red shirt organization, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), and he also doesn't shy away from openly criticizing the monarchy.

In a documentary by VICE News on the current Thai political crisis posted on YouTube earlier this month, "Ko Tee" implies that anti-government protest leader Suthep Thuagsuban "is only the figurehead" and points to somebody higher behind the protest movement.

The reporter asks Kotee what the red-shirts’ demands are. Kotee replies: “We demand that they stop mob gatherings on the streets. We demand the electoral system. They say they love the country. But all they do is destroy it and the economy. I'm fighting the system that has dominated Thailand for a long time. Suthep is only the figurehead. I'm fighting the one who is really behind the mob. You know the meaning, right?"

After a pause, he asks the reporter if she understands the implication of his gesture. He then says the name of the alleged de facto leader of the anti-government protest.

"Hardcore red Kotee target of lèse majesté charge", Prachatai English, April 9, 2014

The reactions were swift and even the Yingluck government were quick to pull the trigger, ordering the police to take legal actions against "Ko Tee", who remains at large at the time of publishing. Furthermore, the authorities have also threatened the public not to share said video, since they could also be implicated for lèse majesté.

That wasn't the only lèse majesté charge this month.

A Thai mother and father have sued their daughter, a vocal anti-establishment red-shirt residing in the UK, for posting video clips of herself defaming the monarchy after they received a storm of hate phone calls from Thai loyalists.

Thai media reported on April 17 that Surapong and Somchintra Amornpat filed a police complaint against their daughter Chatwadee Amornpat, 34, who is now working as a hair stylist in London and holds British citizenship.

Declaring herself a “progressive red shirt” and republican, Chatwadee, aka Rose, recorded several video clips, voicing her opinions on the Thai political conflict and attacking the monarchy and published them on her Facebook profile. (...)

Her parents decided to press charges against her because they were threatened by phone calls from people in Thailand. Pressing charges is to show that they do not condone their daughter’s actions, the parents said, adding that they have warned her to stop defaming the King.

"I want people to understand that just because a daughter is doing something wrong, it doesn't mean the parents are also guilty, because we don't condone such actions," Khaosod English quoted Surapong as saying.

"Parents sue daughter for lèse majesté", Prachatai English, April 19, 2014

While "Rose" is in the United Kingdom, she could be arrested if she returns in Thailand. What is more striking in this case is not only that the parents are filing a lèse majesté complaint against their own daughter, but also the apparent climate of fear in the form of the threats made against the parents.

Such a climate of fear and pre-emptive social obedience - something we have mentioned a few times here when it comes to (over-)emphasizing one's loyalty to the monarchy - has now gained another supporter in form of an online vigilante group. The Facebook group, roughly translated to the "Organisation to Eradicate the Nation's Trash" ("องค์กรเก็บขยะแผ่นดิน" in Thai), has taken it upon itself to, as the name implies, to “exterminate” those that in their view "insult, defame and discredit the monarchy." The group, opened by a former military doctor called Dr Rienthong Naenna, has as of writing more than 140,000 likes since its launch a little over a week ago.

Pro-monarchist vigilantism online is not a new phenomenon in Thailand - at one point in recent history it was even state-sponsored. Those accused of being critical of the monarchy have often been the target of cyber witch hunts. Victims of such attacks have often have their personal details and contact information disclosed in public.

But the aforementioned group is seemingly upping the ante:

Mongkutwattana General Hospital director Rienthong Nanna, who unveiled his new Rubbish Collection Organisation (RCO) last Wednesday, yesterday warned critics that he would “respond with violence” to any violent attacks committed against his supporters.

It came as Dr Rienthong claimed yesterday that about 7pm on Saturday he saw “suspicious-looking men” in three cars lurking outside his house on Chaeng Watthana Road. (...)

Dr Rienthong said he was working on the establishment of a “People’s Army to Protect the Monarchy”, which would recruit people in every region (...). He also invited retired military and police officers who are loyal to the King to a meeting (...) to discuss the establishment of “a special task force of old soldiers” to help the National Police Office punish perpetrators of the lese majeste law.

However, Dr Rienthong told the Bangkok Post that his “People’s Army” and the soldiers task force are not intended to persecute or use violence against fellow Thais. Their mission will be only to look for lese majeste suspects and bring them to justice. He denied the RCO is a rogue organisation and vowed that it will operate within the law, without links to political or business groups.

"Monarchists vow to fight ‘armed threat’", Bangkok Post, April 20, 2014

Even if the online mob does not translate its vigilantism into the real life, it does plant yet another dangerous seed in the already hatred-filled plains by naming their perceived enemies as "trash" and vowing to collect and "eradicate" them. The radical monarchists are setting a dangerous precedent, which some observers have compared to the Thammasat massacre of 1976. The holier-than-thou mindset of those claiming to defend the monarchy is further polarizing an already emotionally charged political crisis and could damage the monarchy in the long run more than they're actually protecting it.

Phuket journalists on trial for quoting Pulitzer-prize winning Rohingya trafficking report

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 17, 2014 UPDATE: After spending five hours in court cell, Phuketwan reporters Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian are released on bail (100,000 Baht each) and are remanded to appear in court again on May 26, according to a report by Australia's The Age.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE:

The trial against two Phuket journalists for alleged defamation is set to begin today. The Royal Thai Navy has sued Phuketwan reporters Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian for their coverage of the Thai authorities' involvement in human trafficking of Rohingya migrants from Burma. This has been complicated by the fact that the offending passage was a quote from another report done by the international news agency Reuters. Both are facing up to seven years in prison if found guilty.

The charges were filed in December last year (see our original blog post here). Both journalists were charged not only for libel, but also also allegedly breaching the Computer Crimes Act, which makes arbitrary legal suits against online dissent (including by third parties) possible thanks to the vague wording of the law. Phuketwan - which has reported extensively on the plight of the Rohingya at the hands of Thai authorities - has quoted from a Reuters special report that specifically accuses members of the Royal Thai Navy of being involved in the trafficking of Rohingya refugees.

The case has drawn international condemnation and has now seen an interesting development:

Reuters won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday for international reporting on the violent persecution of a Muslim minority in Myanmar [Burma], the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University announced.

The board commended Jason Szep and Andrew Marshall of Reuters for their "courageous reports" on the Rohingya, who in their efforts to flee the Southeast Asian country, "often falls victim to predatory human-trafficking networks."

"Reuters, Guardian US, Washington Post, Boston Globe win Pulitzer prizes", Reuters, April 14, 2014

A list of their coverage can be seen here.

Several observers have noted that the Royal Thai Navy have so far not pressed charges against the global news agency Reuters, but instead after the local Phuketwan and to "make an example of them for others," as Bangkok Pundit blogged yesterday.

Several journalists and media advocacy groups have repeated their calls to drop the charges against Morison and Sidasathian ahead of today's trial. Their case - as with the plight of the Rohingya refugees themselves - has received hardly any coverage in the Thai-language media:

However, [Chutima Sidasathian] said she received little or no help from the Thai authorities. Neither the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) or the Thai Journalist Association (TJA) has offered their assistance in the legal procedure, Ms. Chutima told Khaosod, while her letter to the Rights and Liberty Protection Department went unanswered.

"I filed the letter to the officials in Phuket last month. I just discovered that somehow they did not forward the document to Bangkok," Ms. Chutima said, "I am shocked".

She is also disheartened by the fact that the lawsuit against Phuketwan has received very little coverage in the Thai mainstream media.  

"Phuket Journalists To Face Lawsuits Filed By Navy", Khaosod English, April 8, 2014

The case has already set a worrying precedent - it is reportedly the first time the Thai military has made use of the Computer Crimes Act - and things could get even worse if they are convicted. It shows that the Thai authorities have no apparent interest in the treatment of Rohingya migrants in Thailand (as summarized here) or investigating the human trafficking allegations.

Thai webmaster Chiranuch loses appeal against suspended sentence

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 8, 2013 Thai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn has lost her appeal against her sentence for not deleting online comments deemed insulting to the monarchy quickly enough from the now defunct web board of the Thai news site Prachatai. The Criminal Court found her guilty in May 2012 and initially sentenced her to 1 year in prison, which was then reduced to an 8-month suspended sentence thanks to her testimony and a THB20,000 (US$630) fine.

The court stated that Chiranuch had failed to delete one comment for 20 days, whereas the other nine objected comments were deleted within 10 days, thus violating against Article 14 and 15 of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act which punishes “false data” that damages a third party, causes public panic or undermines the country’s security and “any service provider intentionally supporting” the said offenses, respectively – despite the fact that the court also states that the expectation to pre-emptively delete illegal comments was “unfair”.

On Friday morning, the Appeal Court turned down her appeal, essentially agreeing with the Criminal Court's original verdict, adding that Chiranuch should have known better based on her professional experience:

This case highlights the flawed legal foundation: the Computer Crime Act (CCA), which became effective in 2007, is vaguely worded and leaves a lot of room for interpretation and thus also legal arbitrariness, which can be made worse in conjunction with the draconian lèse majesté law (which Chinranuch isn't charged with in this case, by the way). A new version of the CCA is currently being drafted and already faces criticism by several Thai journalism associations (we will take a closer look at it in a future post).

Today's ruling shows again the ambiguous legal situation not only for online users, but also for providers of online content platforms, as they can be held liable for the contents of others. In the context of free speech, it is a severe hindrance to open discussions especially on politically sensitive issues. The condescending remark by the judges that the defendant should have known that online platforms could be used "to defame the King" is a strong hint of the authority's duty to protect the royal institution from any perceived danger, even if it means restricting online debates and online users have to censor themselves.

Thai authorities use scare tactics to curb political rumors online

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 12, 2013 Thailand's authorities are openly resorting to scare tactics to curb online discussions of politics after the summoning of several users for posting coup rumors on Facebook and a dumbfoundingly revealing interview with an official admitting his division's use of said methods.

The debate of the amnesty bills in parliament last week and the anticipation of opposition both in and outside the House caused the government to invoke the Internal Security Act in order to deal with anti-government protests. This, along with suspicious tank movements to the capital Bangkok (later dispelled by the army as a routine exercise), triggered heightened political tensions with fears of an escalation of the ongoing standoff between the various factions.

So it comes to no surprise that these tensions are being discussed online, including the inevitable mention of a possible military coup (which unfortunately is never out of the question in Thailand). However, such talk is not tolerated by the Thai authorities and have launched counter-measures, as seen last week:

Four people, including an editor of a TV channel, will be summoned for posting statements on social media which could lead to anxiety among the general public, a senior police officer said today.

Pol Maj Gen Pisit Pao-in, commander of the Technology Crime Suppression Division [TCSD], said the four suspects posted messages via social media, saying they anticipated a coup and urged people to stock up on food and water in preparations for shortage. Their statements could put people in a state of panic, he said.

The four included Sermsuk Kasitipradit, political and security editor of Thai Public Broadcast Service (ThaiPBS), Dechatorn Tirapiriya, a Red Shirt leader in Chonburi province, Warnuee Kamduangwong and a user under the pseudonym “Yo Onshine”.

"Four people to be summoned for posting unwanted texts on social media", MCOT, August 5, 2013

The contents of the Facebook posts themselves are largely unknown to the public and the most prominent person to be accused, ThaiPBS' Sermsuk Kasitipradit, has reportedly already deleted the offending Facebook post. He was interrogated on Friday.

The TCSD chief also was of the opinion that the four persons summoned - even before any charges were filed - violated Article 116 of the Criminal Code and Article 14 of the Computer Crimes Act (and NOT "National Computer Act", MCOT!). Both articles address the matter of "national security" stating that "words, writings" or "false computer data" respectively that can cause "disturbance" or "a public panic" is punishable with either a hefty fine or five years in prison or both.

Regular readers know that the Computer Crimes Act (CCA) is vaguely worded and deeply flawed, and thus its interpretation and application in conjunction with the Criminal Code by the authorities are arbitrary as the countless lèse majesté-related cases have shown in the past.

What this case also reveals is the blatant view of the Thai authorities in regards of curbing free speech online with straight-up intimidation, as the TCSD's chief Police Maj.-Gen. Pisit Pao-in shows in what can only be described a dumbfounding interview:

Q : Are asking if clicking "like" is now against the law. [sic]

A : It will be if you 'like' a message deemed damaging to national security. If you press 'like', it means you are accepting that message, which is tantamount to supporting it. By doing so, you help increase the credibility of the message and hence you should also be held responsible. (...)

A : The TCSD action is just meant to have a psychological impact. We don't want these four persons to be jailed. We just questioned them and it's okay for them to say they didn't mean to create panic. After this action, people are now more careful [about their Facebook messages]. I am mainly aiming at social peace. (...)

Q : What about "sharing" such a message?

A : There are two kinds of sharing. If you share in a way to support the original message, this is wrong. But if you comment against the message, this is okay.

"'Liking' political rumours is a crime", The Nation, August 11, 2013

Unfortunately, Pisit's staggering and blatantly anachronistic comments are in line with past and present governments in handling online censorship: under the premiership of Abhisit Vejjajiva the number of blocked URLs skyrocketed and the 'Cyber Scouts'-program to monitor online dissidents was launched. The current government of Yingluck Shinawatra has maintained if not even worsened the trend by doing essentially more of the same, as current Minister for Communication and Technology (MICT) Anudith Nakornthap vowed to continue the crackdown on lèse majesté contents and has also pledged to criminalize Facebook 'likes' not once, but twice now with the current case!

It is just astonishing yet unsurprising that such a self-image and understanding the Thai authorities still have of what and how discussions - especially of political nature - are ought to be like and ought to be dictated by only them. By admitting to openly use such scare tactics against online users and to outlaw simple 'likes' and 'shares' on Facebook, it really begs the question what their understanding of 'social peace' is, that can only be enforced.

Thai army ordered to stand down after bullying yellow shirt paper

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 14, 2013 This past weekend, around 40-50 military officers suddenly showed up in front of the building of ASTV-Manager protesting the paper's harsh criticism of the army and the 'slandering' of their armed forces chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The soldiers from the 1st army region assembled on Friday afternoon after the newspaper compared Prayuth's most recent outburst to a "woman in her periods". A second protest was staged on Saturday morning at the same spot and they threatened to repeat it again every day until the paper apologizes.

The show of force by the officers in green came after a public tit-for-tat between General Prayuth and the newspaper, the latter attacking the armed forces for their handling of the border conflict with neighboring Cambodia over the ancient Buddhist Hindu temple Preah Vihear. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) will hold hearings in April, after the Cambodia has requested the ICJ to reinterpret aspects of the 1962 ruling in their favor. A decision is expected to take place in October later this year.

Just to be very clear, the publication the soldiers were protesting is far from being the beacon of the Thai press media: ASTV-Manager is the press outlet of the ultra-nationalistic and ill-named "People's Alliance for Democracy" (PAD), also commonly known as the yellow shirts. Apart from their regular anti-democratic diatribes and low punches as seen above (that reflects its comments section), the Preah Vihear temple conflict is one of the issues the political pressure group is using to rally up supporters - just that it's one of the less popular ones compared to those that have a distinct anti-Thaksin and nowadays anti-Yingluck agenda to it.

The last PAD protest over the temple conflict was in early 2011, following another deadly clash at the border between Thai and Cambodian troops. At the short-lived and small protest sit-in, the yellow shirts were at times calling for an open war with Cambodia. Frustrated with their diminished relevance in Thai (street) politics, it was also during that time when they broke off their formerly close alliances with the Democrat Party (which were in power back then) and with hawkish factions of the military, as the PAD accused both of not doing enough for the "interest of the country" over the border conflict.

In the run-up to the ICJ hearings - to which the PAD has urged the government not to accept anything at all by the ICJ in the irrationale fear of losing sovereignty - the PAD's news-outlets are repeating their diatribes against Cambodia, the ICJ and also the army as they started criticizing General Prayuth, which deteriorated into the spat and ultimately to the soldiers' protest, who see not only their army chief being attacked but also the institution of the armed forces as a whole:

The green-uniformed protesters on Saturday said the article has damaged their morale because the army chief is like their "second father". They demanded the media outlet issue an apology to the general.

They also denied being ordered by their superiors to stage the event. Gen Prayuth told reporters earlier that the soldiers were free to hold such rallies because they were trying to protect the armed forces, not just him. (...)

"If [the PAD] were the government, I would have to listen to it. But since it is not, I have no idea what to do with it," Gen Prayuth said during a visit to the border area earlier in the week.

"Prayuth to troops: Stand down at ASTV", Bangkok Post, January 12, 2013

Despite the fact that Prayuth has ordered the soldiers to cease from any more protests, the public display by the soldiers underlines the over-confident self-perception of the armed forces' role in Thai society that they are above from criticism - given Prayuth's erratic outbursts at the media (read here, here and here) that is hardly surprising. While this is mouthpiece of an ultra-nationalistic pressure group we're talking about, having 50 troops show up at their doorstep isn't right either! And to make matters worse, the army is now asking for forgiveness "confidence in the army" - quite an ambitious request after this weekend.

Generally, the reactions by fellow Thai journalists on this incident were swift and clear:

The TJA statement called for the army to respect freedom of the press. If the army feels the media have violated its rights, it can file a complaint with the National Press Council. As well, it said the army chief should listen to media coverage that fairly reflected the army's and his performance without bias and in a constructive way.

At the same time, it said, all media (...) should refrain from distorting the facts or abusing the dignity and human rights of people appearing in the news. They should also refrain from using rude or insulting words, it said.

"Journalists decry threats", Bangkok Post, January 12, 2013

While this response is in principle correct, it begs the question where the TJA was during other (arguably equally severe) interferences and threats to the media and freedom of speech in the past few years? Where was the TJA on the countless lèse majesté cases affecting free speech and charges made against journalists? Where were they when on the verdict of Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn, held liable for online comments she didn't make? Did they say anything about the media interferences by the Abhisit administration? Was there any criticism made over the apparent failure by Thai TV to inform about a potential tsunami warning? And what did the TJA say when (of all people) journalism students were protesting against reforms of the lèse majesté law?

UPDATE: As soon as this post was published on Monday afternoon, news came out that army chief Prayuth has "apologized". However, he merely did only excuse his choices of words ("a lousy newspaper"), but not the message itself.

Thailand in 2012 - Some personal thoughts (Part 2)

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 29, 2012 This is the second and final part of the Siam Voices year-in-review. Yesterday in part 1, we looked at the year of prime minister's government, that of the opposition and the prevailing impunity over the 2010 crackdown.

Lese majeste: Cowardice in the face of first victim

One topic we expected to continue to play a role in 2012 is the draconian lèse majesté law and its unjust application to crack down on alleged dissent voices. And in many ways - despite the release of Thai-American Joe Gordon and an 'only' suspended sentence against Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn for not deleting monarchy-insulting web comments quickly enough - it unfortunately still made headlines for the wrong reasons.

The death of Amphon "Akong" Tangnoppakul marked what could be argued the first victim of lèse majesté. The 64-year-old retiree was serving a 20 year sentence for allegedly sending four defamatory text messages to the personal secretary of Abhisit Vejjajiva (despite inconclusive evidence). Having repeatedly being denied bail and suffering bad health, Akong died in detention on May 8. Obviously, his death sparked universal condemnation against the law - almost: Thailand politicians showed little sympathy and interest to do something about the arbitrary law, with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra insisting not to do anything to change Article 112 of the Criminal Code.

Up until this point, the heated discussion about how to amend or if not abolish the law altogether was ongoing. Leading this debate was the Nitirat group, a collective of reformist law academics from Thammasat University, amidst considerable uproar. And it was that university that had a reputation for being one of the more liberal institutions in this country that was struggling and battling with itself, which led to one of the most astonishing sights of this year: of all people, journalism students (!) were seen protesting against Nitirat and the reform of the lèse majesté law by saying “Don’t use knowledge to distort morality!”

The chances that the law will be somehow changed (or even just remotely touched by politicians) remain slim as two incidents have shown that it is untouchable: the Constitutional Court rejected a petition by Somyot Pruksakasemsuk and Ekachai Hongkangwan, both currently on trial for lèse majesté, as it does not see the constitutional right to free speech being violated by Article 112 of the Criminal Code. In another story, a bill petition proposing to amend the law - signed by over 30,000 - was dismissed by the speaker of the parliament.

Meanwhile earlier this week, a former stockbroker has been sentenced to four years in prison under the equally flawed Computer Crimes Act for spreading "false information".

Emerging neighbors: Thailand's geo-political opportunities and blunders

This past year showed the rapid rise of neighboring Myanmar, as the country carefully progresses economically and politically - despite the unmasking of the ugly side of the Burmese pro-democracy movement regarding the genocide against the Rohingya - and other countries of course are in a gold rush mood, as they see new investment opportunities and also to grow their regional influence.

Thailand was one of the few countries that already did business with its neighbor before the change and the upcoming industrial area and deep sea port in Dawei on Myanmar's west coast is the biggest of them. But we reported at the beginning of this year that the mega-project ran into some problems and also caused the Thai government to reconsider their commitment. However, after a visit by Prime Minister Yingluck to Myanmar it seems to be on track again.

A different story shows how Thailand has lost some regional credibility: When NASA planned to use the Thai naval airbase in U-Tapao for atmospheric research study, the opposition Democrat Party drummed up nationalistic outrage and tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists came out crawling again - conveniently forgetting that...

Officials have noted that the Democrats, now opposed to the NASA initiative, approved the program while in power in 2010 and that it would not entail the use of military aircraft.

"Baseless controversy over Thailand's U-Tapao", Asia Times One, June 22, 2012

It was petty domestic political squabbles that eventually led the annoyed NASA to kill the project and gave Thailand a huge slap to the face geo-politically for not being able to sort itself out.

While the prime minister was busy traveling the world this year to bolster economical ties (read our exclusive report on her visit to Germany and France here), Thailand needs to take charge in the ASEAN region (and without looking down on its neighbors), if it doesn't want to loose relevancy.

The exploits of "ThaiMiniCult" in 2012: Mammophobia!

Of course it wouldn't be Siam Voices if we wouldn't monitor the self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything “Thai”-ness - or in short "ThaiMiniCult". And while this year they have been noticeably less outraged in quantity, there were still instances when we could only shake our heads.

There was for example the ThaiMiniCult that was rumored (and thank god it was only a rumor) to order that "100 per cent males" shouldn't play transgender roles on TV. Or some arbitrary survey that blames Facebook for teen pregnancies, only to find out that it was lazy journalism that caused that headline, while the real problem of nearly non-existing sexual education is being swept under the carpet. Or the MP that was caught looking up some naughty pictures on his phone in parliament.

But probably the most noticeable media outrage (and also the most-clicked Siam Voices story of 2012) was the 'controversy' over the literally bare-breasted painting performance on the TV show "Thailand's Got Talent" that caused one of the judges to throw a sanctimonious tantrum on national TV and a moral witch-hunt. In the end, it turns out that the producers have "hired" her for a staged controversy. However, given how Thais reacted (or claimed to react) to this brouhaha, it was in many ways revealing.

What else happened this year? (in no particular order)

- The four-part series on Thai Education Failures by our regular Siam Voices contributor Kaewmala is a must-read! Be it ridiculous O-Net questions, questionable standardization, our poor international performance and lacking English proficiencies - our archaic education system is in dire need of change! And what does the Pheu Thai government do? Give away free tablets...!

- A rape case in Krabi, the disgusting denial by the Thai tourism minister in order to 'protect' the image and a father's creative plea for justice.

- Thais being outraged by five tourist douchebags cutting down a tree while most population doesn't give a damn about their own environmental lifestyle and willingly plastic-bags everything...!

- Thais being outraged at Lady Gaga for tweeting the intention of buying a fake Rolex while most of the population otherwise willingly ignores the countless counterfeit markets, and after campaigns by outraged religious groups in the Philippines and Indonesia to ban her concerts, looking rather silly and childish...!

- The Thai senator who accidentally shot his wife...or secretary...or cousin...with an uzi...or not...!

- In upside-down world news this year: The reactionary right-wing ASTV/Manager (media outlet of the anti-democratic yellow shirts) accuses the blatantly anti-Thaksin The Nation (an attempt of a newspaper) of being pro-Thaksin - mind blown!

- "Double, double toil and trouble;" - Thailand's movie adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" gets banned, but not for the depiction of regicide, rather for the depiction of another "Dear Leader" and the disparagement of his followers.

- Three Iranian terrorists literally blowing up their cover on Valentine's Day in the middle of Bangkok after a warning by the United States Embassy and the immediate arrest of a Hezbollah suspect a month before that and the tweeting motorcycle taxi driver that got the scoop of his lifetime. And deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung as the spiritual successor of the former Iraqi information minister by saying that there's "absolutely no terrorism" in the kingdom.

- Deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung as our new regular contributor to the "Tongue-Thai’ed!"-segments and coming up with the most creative name for the new command center in the South!

- The tsunami scare in April and the failure of Thai TV to inform the public because of a royal cremation ceremony.

- The Dhammakāya Movement's newest revelation: the afterlife of Apple's Steve Jobs...!

- The visit of US President Barack Obama to Thailand, and his meeting with Yingluck Shinwatra and half of the internet not able to be mature about it.

- The Bangkok Futsal Arena fiasco, as the city has failed to construct a purposed-built arena in time for FIFA Futsal World Cup and thus embarrassing themselves on a world stage.

- The return of the fraudulent bomb-sniffing device also known as the GT200, essentially a horrendously overpriced empty plastic shell with a dowsing rod. It's ineffectiveness has been proven since 2010, but it has emerged that the bogus device is still in use by the armed forces for the simple reason that there's "no alternative" but to keep on using it until there's a replacement, while soldiers are unnecessarily risking their lives more than they should because of this fraud, whose UK manufacturer has been charged this year.

- Thailand has FINALLY reached the early 21st century with the arrival of real 3G network coverage after an eternal farce and one last court decision - while neighboring Laos is preparing for 4G already...!

- And last, but not least: The still undisputed, most coherent article by The Nation - EVER!

I’d like to thank my co-writers and editors at Siam Voices and Asian Correspondent for their contributions and work this year, and YOU, the readers, for the support, feedback, criticism, links and retweets! Here’s to an eventful, exciting 2013 that brings us news, changes, developments to discuss and report for all the right reasons! Happy New Year!